A kinder, gentler juvenile justice system

Illinois moving toward rehab and data to reform youth prisons

Nine years after splitting from its parent agency, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice continues to struggle at fulfilling its mission. However, a new action plan released earlier this year seems to be pushing the agency in the right direction.

The plan calls for both legislative and procedural changes that would see fewer young people behind bars and more receiving the help they need to successfully reenter society. A progress report released last week shows IDJJ has a clear vision for reforms and is already implementing some.

“Over the past six months, we have made definitive progress to foster better life outcomes for youth in departmental custody,” said IDJJ director Candice Jones in a press release accompanying the progress report.

Meanwhile, longtime reform advocates say IDJJ still has some serious hurdles to clear.

Through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and a partnership with reform-minded nonprofits the Vera Institute of Justice and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, IDJJ identified a road map for reforms in March 2015. The agency’s six-month progress report, released Sept. 4, outlines steps already taken and a bevy of changes IDJJ will pursue in the coming months.

Already in progress at IDJJ is the implementation of a “Youth Assessment and Screening Instrument,” which provides the agency an objective benchmark to determine how likely a youth is to reoffend and how the agency should approach rehabilitating each offender. The screening tool furthers the agency’s goal of ensuring that only youth who pose a significant risk to the public are incarcerated.

Betsy Clarke, founder of the nonprofit Juvenile Justice Initiative, says it is heartening to see IDJJ focus on “right-sizing” its population. For too long, Clarke says, Illinois’ juvenile justice system hasn’t been safe, humane or therapeutic, but that seems to be changing.

Past reports from outside observers like the John Howard Association have revealed a critical lack of services in IDJJ facilities, especially education, mental health treatment and substance abuse counseling. IDJJ has set high goals for providing incarcerated youth with personalized rehabilitation services, as well as better education and community-based treatment.

Clarke says the agency should close one or even two facilities and plow those savings back into its programs, especially Redeploy Illinois, a successful program which pays counties to treat youth offenders in their own communities.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, says the IDJJ facility at Kewanee should be closed. JHA released a report in 2014 dinging Kewanne for chronic understaffing, badly needed renovations and safety problems.

When youth offenders are released from custody, they are subject to an “Aftercare” system that provides social services and accountability. IDJJ wants to develop a system of “graduated sanctions” for offenders who violate the conditions of their Aftercare so that only those who commit serious infractions return to custody. To limit recidivism, IDJJ has also hired more Aftercare workers and begun to provide more guidance and services after release.

Clarke says IDJJ still has work to do on transparency, noting that the agency still has very little data available on how well its efforts are working.

Vollen-Katz says IDJJ is working with antiquated computer systems and financial constraints which hinder transparency efforts.

“On the other hand, you have to have the will to do it and make it a primary piece of what you do,” she said. “State agency systems don’t talk to each other, and that has a really negative impact on the youth.”

Some changes IDJJ made required action by the legislature, such as changing state law to divert youth convicted of low-level misdemeanors from incarceration to community-based rehabilitation like Redeploy Illinois. (Correction: This story previously incorrectly stated that changing the law was a goal of IDJJ. The change already occurred as Public Act 99-0268.)

In August, Gov. Bruce Rauner approved two new laws accomplishing long time goals of juvenile justice reform advocates. One law abolished the practice of automatically sending minors to adult court when they’re accused of certain serious crimes, while the other law ended the incarceration of children under the age of 13. Clarke’s Juvenile Justice Initiative had championed the measures since its inception in 2000.

Clarke notes that the Illinois General Assembly has warmed up to reforms, instead of favoring incarceration as the first and best option.

“There has been quite a shift in the legislature,” she said. “The bipartisan effort has been commendable.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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