The Illinois General Assembly is considering a list of bills that would put new rules and regulations on  teenagers – from extending a nighttime driving curfew to allowing teachers to search students’ lockers without consent.

But as these bills go through the legislative process, there’s often one group who isn’t participating – teens themselves.

with list of legislation affecting teenagers attached at bottom


State Capitol Bureau



The Illinois General Assembly is considering a list of bills that would put new rules and regulations on  teenagers – from extending a nighttime driving curfew to allowing teachers to search students’ lockers without consent.

But as these bills go through the legislative process, there’s often one group who isn’t participating – teens themselves.

Young people traditionally aren’t involved in shaping state legislation that affects them, said Charlie Wheeler, a longtime Statehouse reporter who now directs the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“Historically they haven’t been a very strong presence at all -- certainly not in an organized group,” Wheeler said.

That’s been true during this year’s legislative session as well.

Take House Bill 3131, under which anyone under 21 who is given court supervision for consuming alcoholic beverages would automatically have his or her driver’s license suspended for three months – even if the person was not in or near a vehicle when caught drinking.

No teens testified at committee hearings about the proposal, and House Minority Leader Tom Cross, the bill’s sponsor, said he talked to teens in his district about the legislation only after he introduced it.

“They were not part of the process,” said Cross, a Republican from Oswego. “It was more state’s attorneys and teachers and judges.”

However, Cross said teens he has talked to have been “generally supportive” of the proposal, drawn up in response to a Feb. 11 crash in Oswego that killed five teenagers.

Perhaps the most prominent teen-related state legislation this year is a package that would impose new restrictions on teen drivers. The reforms were drawn up by a task force created by Secretary of State Jesse White in August, after 15 youths in Tazewell County died in highway-related incidents over a 15-month period.

The 28-member task force included legislators, law enforcement officials, educators and victims’ rights advocates. But no teenagers were on the panel. And  of the 37 people who testified before the panel during hearings in Chicago, Springfield and Carterville, only one was a teenager.

Asked if teenagers had an adequate say in the formation of teen-related bills, Cross said, “my guess is probably not.”

“I think it’s the natural instinct for lawmakers and the secretary of state to go to police and schools and judges and drunk driving groups,” he said.


Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said legislators often ignore teenagers because they’re either too young to vote or, if old enough to vote, usually don’t.

Instead, he said, when they consider teen-related bills, lawmakers usually listen to older generations who do vote.

In addition, Gaines said, the American political system is built around the idea that minors aren’t mature enough to deal with politics, so their interests are taken care of by their parents.

Lack of teen involvement in politics, though, can’t be blamed solely on politicians, however.  Young people themselves historically haven’t shown much interest in politics, especially on the state level.

Legislators also respond more to constituents who personally call or show up at their offices, Wheeler said – again, actions that not many teens take.

Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, said he rarely gets calls from teens about issues.

“I don’t think that teenagers, the first thing on their mind is state legislation,” Bomke said. “They’re more interested in the upcoming sporting event, the dance this weekend, a final they have to take next week.”


Some legislators actively try to engage teens in state politics and seek their opinion on Statehouse issues.

Rep. Sandy Cole, R-Grayslake, regularly consults with an advisory committee made up of several juniors and seniors from high schools in her district. The committee will often come up with ideas for new legislation on topics such as stem cell research, she said.

“Some of this stuff I’ve never even thought of,” Cole said. “It’s pretty stimulating for me to remember where I was back when I was their age and how I felt about things. It reminds me that I have to be much more open-minded when I work with young people.”

Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria, writes elementary, middle and high school teachers in his district to ask to speak to their classes.

Schock tells students about the importance of knowing who their legislators are, how bills become law, and how to lobby a lawmaker. He tries to drive home the importance of state government by giving them examples of legislation that would affect them.

“The reaction from the kids is, gee, despite the fact that the federal government is where most of the media puts its attention …the reality is many of the laws that affect their day-to-day life are in fact state laws, not federal laws,” Schock said.


However, teens are playing an increasingly significant role in one aspect of the legislative process –  teaching lawmakers about the latest advances in technology.

In January, Cole was asked by two constituents to introduce legislation requiring convicted sex offenders to provide law enforcement with their e-mail addresses, instant message screen names, blogs, and other forms of online communication.

Cole, 53, turned to her in-house Internet advisory team: her two college-age children.

“I had them show me the process,” Cole said. “They gave me access to MySpace and the Facebook. So my kids put me on there to show me – and I have a page on both of those, I hope you don’t look them up – showing me how easy it was to just be simply talking with one of my friends and have somebody solicit a chat with me.”

“The Internet didn’t even exist when I graduated from college,” Cole said.

Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, says one of his leading sources for updates on technology and the Internet is his 16-year-old daughter, Becky.

“Many times on computer issues or tech issues, if you talk to an expert, you won’t understand a thing they’re telling you,” Lang said. “But when you talk to a teenager, who has grown up with this technology and they can just recall it and get where they want to get quickly …or explain to you in regular language how to do something, it’s very helpful.”



Jeremy Pelzer can be reached at (217) 782-3095 or at



Proposed legislation affecting teenagers:

* Teen driving reforms (Senate Bill 172): Passed Senate, in House 


- Triples, from three months to nine months, the length of time a teen must hold a learner's permit before applying for a driver’s license.

- Moves teen driving curfew from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and from midnight to 11 p.m. on weekends (with certain exemptions) and raises curfew age to include 17-year-olds.

- Doubles, to one year, the period during which new 16-year-old drivers cannot have more than one non-related passenger under the age of 20. Allows police to ticket passenger as well as driver.

- Requires at least six hours of street driving in high school driver's education courses.

*Locker searches (House Bill 3730): Passed House, in Senate


Allows teachers to search areas owned by the school (such as lockers) without consent of students and without search warrants, if searches are related to “drugs, weapons or other dangerous substances or materials,” and teachers act on “reasonable suspicion.”

*Drinking and driving (House Bill 3131): Passed House, in Senate


Anyone under 21 caught drinking loses drivers’ license or three months, even if the drinking didn’t take place in or around a vehicle.

*Driving records (House Bill 518): Passed House, in Senate


Allows parents to view the online driving records of their teenage children.

*Cell phone use (House Bill 559): In House


Extends ban on using a cell phone while driving to include 18-year-olds. Ban now applies to those 17 and younger.