Kids in prison

Fixing Illinois’ juvenile justice system

click to enlarge A young inmate at Illinois Youth Center at Warrenville, the state’s maximum-security prison for girls, reads on her bed next to a mural on her bedroom wall. Having more relaxing colors and decor is part of the prison’s approach t - PHOTO BY HEATHER STONE/MCT
A young inmate at Illinois Youth Center at Warrenville, the state’s maximum-security prison for girls, reads on her bed next to a mural on her bedroom wall. Having more relaxing colors and decor is part of the prison’s approach t

What do you do when you catch a criminal? Conventional wisdom says you lock them up and hope prison scares them straight. But what if that doesn’t work, and what if that criminal is only 13 years old?

That’s what Illinois lawmakers thought they were providing four years ago when they established the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. It was to be a place, separate from the prison system, where kids gone wrong could be steered right. But, like Eve from Adam, IDJJ was created from the proverbial rib of the Illinois Department of Corrections, and though the two are now separate agencies, they are still entwined by their shared resources and attitudes toward corrections.

Legislators who pushed for a separate juvenile system hoped to move juvenile justice away from punishment toward a rehabilitative system that has shown promise in other states. The theory is that delinquent kids commit crimes because of exposure to violence, a lack of positive role models or a variety of other factors. Providing a safe, instructive and remedial environment is supposed to change their thinking and turn them into productive members of society, rather than hardening them into career criminals. So far, that dream hasn’t been realized, says Betsy Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, based in Springfield at 413 West Monroe St.

“Nearly four years following its creation, the Department of Juvenile Justice remains disturbingly far from embracing the treatment mission envisioned by the legislature,” Clarke told the Illinois House Appropriations Committee in an April 14 hearing.

She says many of the problems present in the juvenile justice system – understaffing, high recidivism, lack of training, inadequate mental health treatment, poor education and disproportionate minority incarceration – stem from the fact that the system is set up like a miniature version of IDOC, largely focused on punishment instead of rehabilitation. What was supposed to be a therapeutic environment has become a microcosm of the system it was meant to avoid.

IDJJ holds approximately 1,500 youth offenders between ages 13 and 20 in eight “youth centers” – essentially junior prisons – across the state. Young people can land in these prisons for practically any crime from theft to murder, and a disproportionate number of them are minorities, just like in the adult system. Once they are released, they often are sent back for violating parole, just like in the adult system. In fact, about half of the kids who leave IDJJ will return within three years, 40 percent of them for violating the conditions of their release – numbers strikingly similar to the adult system. Their post-release “aftercare” is not handled by parole officers trained in dealing with youth offenders, but by already overburdened officers from the adult correctional system. They are more accustomed to dealing with hardened criminals than with kids who might have made some bad choices.

click to enlarge Youths inside their confinement rooms at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Center in Joliet. The  facility, formerly under the Illinois Department of Corrections, houses 230 offenders who represent some  of the highest risk youths from a securit - PHOTO BY ANTONIO PEREZ/MCT
Youths inside their confinement rooms at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Center in Joliet. The facility, formerly under the Illinois Department of Corrections, houses 230 offenders who represent some of the highest risk youths from a securit

Understaffing and lack of training

The John Howard Association of Illinois released a study of the juvenile justice system in January 2010 saying staffing levels in IDJJ are too low; counselors, administrators, teachers, clerics and even maintenance staff have dwindled due to retirements and transfers, hindering the effectiveness of youth prisons. Staff-to-youth ratios are 1/24 in some facilities and can reach 1/60 at night, the study says.

“It is difficult to imagine effecting change in a youth’s thinking and behavior with such high ratios,” the study says. “In order to impact youth behavior, one must be aware of the youth’s ongoing behaviors and respond appropriately. … This requires staff-to-resident ratios that are much smaller than in current practice.”

How much smaller? The study says a ratio of one adult to eight youth is most effective, “although 1 to 10 is do-able with well-trained staff.”

But training for IDJJ staff is sparse. Many of the staff in the juvenile justice department are transplants from the Department of Corrections, lacking training in youth rehabilitation and bringing with them the attitudes prevalent in the adult system.

“While the agency has recently utilized outside resources to train a few staff, the majority of staff members remain untrained in juvenile treatment policies and practices,” Betsy Clarke says. “The failure to train all staff in treatment-oriented approaches to youth corrections renders it impossible to fulfill the treatment mission of the new department.”

Education and programming

While youth are incarcerated in Illinois, they are supposed to receive education so they don’t reenter the outside world lagging behind their peers in learning. Sometimes they receive that education, but often they don’t.

Clarke says at least one youth prison offers only half-day education, and the John Howard study says the department’s schools – District 428 – are funded at only one-third the minimum level of normal public schools. IDJJ is working on educational improvements to better train teachers, keep in contact with parents and create a uniform calendar for the whole district, the study says. But still nearly two-thirds of the department’s youth have educational disabilities, and 65 percent don’t even finish the eighth grade. Meanwhile, a lack of consistent educational programming keeps kids from developing real-world skills.

“Vocational programs are a key weakness of the system. They are not consistent through the facilities, often utilize outdated equipment and may not be training youth for jobs which exist within their home communities,” the study says.

Clarke says the lack of adequate programming undermines the reason for the department’s very existence.

“Without a comprehensive range of programming, youth are simply warehoused, and leave without adequate skills to reenter school or enter the job market,” she says.

Mental health treatment

Nearly two-thirds of youth in IDJJ have both a mental health diagnosis and a substance abuse diagnosis, according to the John Howard study. Advocates say available mental health treatment simply isn’t enough.

Illinois does have programs like the Mental Health Juvenile Justice Initiative, which links youth in detention facilities to mental health services. Also, the department has begun to develop a new mental health classification system. But those reforms haven’t been completely implemented, and identifying which youth need treatment is still a challenge.

“There is a disturbing dearth of quality evaluation and validation of the tools used as mental health screening and assessment instruments,” says a March 2010 report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. The methods used to identify mental illness in youth are unproven, the agency says, meaning some kids who need help may slip through the cracks, and those who are treated may not get enough attention.

“Most respondents indicated a need for more standardized practices of screening and assessment, more comprehensive services that continue after a youth is no longer involved with the juvenile justice system, and better quality services,” the ICJIA report says.

Betsy Clarke says the lack of adequate mental health treatment is sometimes replaced by the use of solitary confinement, causing more harm than good. That may have contributed to two suicides at the Kewanee and St. Charles youth prisons in 2009. Kewanee, in fact, has an entire wing devoted to solitary isolation, Clarke notes.

“This discipline technique is directly contrary to a treatment modality for youth with mental health issues,” she says.

Racial disparities

Juvenile justice systems nationwide share a problem known as “disproportionate minority contact.” It’s a bureaucratic name that essentially means a minority youth has a greater chance of winding up in prison than a white youth for the same crime. Since the late 1980s, the federal government has required states to report DMC numbers and make efforts to reduce them, but Illinois has made little progress in this area. Although DMC seems to begin before youth offenders end up in prison, IDJJ becomes the de facto face of the problem because of how many minorities tend to be stuck in its facilities.

According to a December 2009 report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, 765 of the 1,362 youth committed to IDJJ in 2007 were black, a rate of 56 percent. That means black youths were incarcerated at a rate almost triple their representation in the general Illinois youth population. The same data show 459 committed youth were white and 136 were Hispanic. More recent data are not yet available from ICJIA.

From Sangamon County, 22 of the 30 youths committed to IDJJ in 2007 were black, compared with only eight white youths, a rate of 73 percent. That means black youths in Sangamon County were incarcerated at a rate 12 times their representation in the general county youth population, according to ICJIA.

“It’s a horribly, horribly complex problem,” says Pat Connell, juvenile justice consultant with the John Howard Association.

To understand the problem, Connell says, one must look at how youth end up in prison in the first place. Their initial arrest can be problematic because the attitudes of police and youth can negatively affect their interactions, escalating confrontations that might otherwise have seen more reasonable resolutions.

“If you’re not inclined to see the police as helpful or friendly, you’re more likely to lip off, be less forthcoming, or even run when you see them,” Connell says, and that interaction will change how police charge the original crime.

Another factor is the evaluation system used by IDJJ to determine whether a youth will be sent to prison or receive a lesser sentence. Connell says IDJJ uses a supposedly race-neutral point system to assess a youth offender’s options, but certain aspects of that system tend to be biased against minorities. She says points are given for youth from single-parent homes and for having relatives in the custody of the justice system, factors which tend to affect youth of color more often. Black and Latino youth tend to get more points, so they are more regularly sent to youth prisons, she explains.

 The federal No Child Left Behind Act is partially to blame as well, Connell says, because the funding structure based on test scores inadvertently encourages schools to kick out youth who underperform and cause trouble at school.

“Once kids are pushed out of school, many never go back,” she says. “When they’re not in school, they are more likely to commit crimes. It’s a downward spiral.”

Combine that with zero-tolerance school discipline policies and lack of resources among low-income families to deal with delinquency or treat mental health conditions, and a recipe for gross racial disparity in youth prisons emerges.

“In many cases, it’s not a conscious bias that causes these problems,” Connell says. “But we all bring culture to the table, and when we have different cultures, we inevitably have clashes and trouble. Solving these problems is going to require every community to look deep inside itself.”

click to enlarge Youths, escorted by a youth supervisor, walk to their classroom building at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Center in Joliet. - PHOTO BY ANTONIO PEREZ/MCT
Youths, escorted by a youth supervisor, walk to their classroom building at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Center in Joliet.


To deal with the problems facing the juvenile justice system, Gov. Pat Quinn penned an executive order April 15 asking legislators to combine IDJJ with the Department of Children and Family Services.

“…Integrating the Department of Juvenile Justice into the Department of Children and Family Services would best advance a culture change from a punitive approach toward a rehabilitative, treatment-focused model of care that engages families, promotes public safety, and holds youth accountable for their actions while providing better services for young people in facilities and after release,” Quinn wrote.

The change would also likely mean IDJJ and IDOC would no longer share resources such as parole officers.

Dr. Toni Irving, deputy chief of staff for Quinn, says the merger makes sense because DCFS has a better sense of the environment youth offenders need in order to thrive.

“We have a group of youth who we want to put in a very youth-centered department,” Irving says. “The understanding is that youth can be rehabilitated, so we need to think about the services and treatments that are connected to that.”

The merger would improve aftercare services for IDJJ youth, Irving notes, and DCFS could even help IDJJ obtain more federal funding.

“This really gives us an opportunity to examine (IDJJ) from top to bottom and
see where improvements could be made,” Irving says, “For example, we could tap into federal funds through Medicaid, so they could get better mental health and substance abuse treatment. …
Because DCFS so much understands the emotional, psychological needs of youth, they are aware of so many other funding sources that weren’t really tapped into or focused on.”

Pat Connell from the John Howard Association has reservations about the possible merger. Although DCFS is set up to handle children and will likely be more receptive to the rehabilitation model of corrections, it lacks the infrastructure and skills of a correctional system, according to Connell.

“DCFS has not been dealing with this population,” she says. “I don’t know if they have any significant number of staff within the department who necessarily have the experience or skills to deal with this population.”

Additionally, there are some functions that IDOC performs for IDJJ, for which there is no corollary in DCFS, Connell notes.

“The whole intelligence function, figuring out who is in which gang and which gang is in which community, does not exist in DCFS,” she offers as an example. “Identification of people in a justice system is a big issue. Do we have the right person? Is it the same person who’s wanted somewhere else? It requires links to state and local police. All of that stuff is provided by IDOC, and there’s nothing in DCFS that is similar.”

The changes that would need to be made to DCFS to accommodate IDJJ would cost more money, she says, discounting the idea of a revenue-neutral transition.

“I don’t think the director of DCFS would say he has an excess of resources,” Connell says. “A couple of things could happen: child welfare kids could get shortchanged, or DJJ kids could continue to be shortchanged.”

The possible merger would mark a shift for the attitudes and procedures of juvenile justice in Illinois, Irving notes, but there would still be plenty of work to do afterward.

“It gives us an opportunity to fully evaluate the department, open it up, scout it out and see how it’s working,” Irving says. “It’s an indication of the heightened level of attention that delinquent youth are going to receive. It’s going to be an ongoing, constant incorporation of best practices, to constantly be about making the department as strong as it possibly can be.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at

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