Illinois’ system of warehousing juvenile delinquents doesn’t work, according to a state-appointed reform group calling for sweeping changes in how youth offenders are handled.
The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, a state advisory group mandated by federal law, revealed Dec. 13 a damning report on the failures of Illinois’ juvenile justice system. More than half of kids released from prison in Illinois will return to prison, the commission says, and many ultimately wind up in the state’s adult prisons, making the juvenile prisons “the ‘feeder system’ to the adult criminal justice system and a cycle of crime, victimization and incarceration.”
The commission found major problems with how the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) determines which youths to release, how parole is handled after release and how DJJ tracks cases. Kids lack educational and vocational opportunities while incarcerated, the commission says, and those who are released receive only “nominal preparation” to rejoin society.
A problem even more pressing is the violation of the constitutional right to due process by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which holds hearings on revoking juvenile parole, the commission said. Among problems the commission found with the board’s proceedings are a lack of attorneys for youth offenders, lack of opportunities to present and review evidence and a lack of opportunities to cross-examine adverse witnesses. George Timberlake, retired chief judge of the 2nd Judicial Circuit, said the hearings invite a lawsuit against the state.
The commission says youth offenders in Illinois are treated like adults, but they shouldn’t be.
“In spite of the separation of DJJ (from the Illinois Department of Corrections) and numerous federal and Illinois laws recognizing the inherent differences between youth and adults, the reality for Illinois youth is that once they are committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice, they are subject to a system of release decision-making, parole and revocation that is functionally identical to the adult system and modeled on adult culpability and capability,” the commission says. “The application of these adult approaches to youth is problematic – not just for developmental and fundamental fairness reasons, but because it does not work.”
To remedy these problems, the commission calls on DJJ to modernize with specially-trained parole agents, “wrap-around” services like therapy and substance abuse treatment, and updated case management software to replace what Timberlake called “a coal-fired computer.”
The Prisoner Review Board should be trained to handle juvenile cases, the commission says, and youth should not be given a “one-size-fits-all” parole.
DJJ director Arthur Bishop says the department has adopted “step-down” programs with mentoring, counseling and other services to help youth readjust to normal life after prison.
Julie Biehl, director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University Law School, said an “Aftercare” pilot program in Cook County turns away from the traditional ideas of parole.
“One of the critical differences is that not only are they under surveillance, but they are also supported and provided services and linkages to incredibly important things like schools, jobs, mental health services and other things that are critically important when a kid returns to the community,” Biehl said.
Bishop said Aftercare workers function less like parole agents and more like social service workers. The department hopes to eventually expand that program statewide.
Timberlake said Aftercare workers are available “twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” making them much more responsive and effective than traditional parole officers.
“I know caseworkers who get up in the middle of the night because there’s a fight going on at a kid’s home,” Timberlake said. “I know caseworkers who take those kids to church with them. They accept the responsibility of changing behavior as a mission in life. Those are excellent, excellent approaches.”
The commission’s report can be viewed online at tinyurl.com/kidjustice
[CORRECTION: This story previously identified George Timberlake as a retired Cook County judge. The story has been corrected to show that he served as chief judge of the 2nd Judicial Circuit.]
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.