OP-ED: Illinois Needs Smaller Juvenile Prison Systems

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New-Timberlake-color-e1378833721804-140x140Illinois received more evidence last week that incarcerating young people doesn’t rehabilitate them. Independent experts told a federal court that Illinois’ juvenile prison system operates an education program far below minimally accepted standards, does not meet the basic mental health needs of incarcerated youth and uses solitary confinement too often and for too long, with potentially damaging effects on youth who return to our communities.

Gov. Pat Quinn has another view.

"We've made very important strides in juvenile justice in Illinois," he told reporters.

Can they be talking about the same prison system? Yes, and both seemingly diametrically opposed viewpoints are correct.

Following Quinn’s appointment of Arthur Bishop as Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) in 2010, there have been significant improvements in some conditions and delivery of rehabilitative services to kids held in state prisons. IDJJ has also established a new aftercare program to transition youth back to their homes after leaving prison. New state programs and policies have reduced the number of youth in state prisons from more than 1,400 to around 900 in the past seven years. That’s good news for public safety and for those youth who can be held accountable for their actions at the local level and don’t have to leave home to receive treatment for mental illnesses and addictions and don’t have their educations interrupted.

But the experts’ reports, which are part of a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Illinois, describe conditions that should keep us all awake at night: little schooling, inadequate mental health care even for youth in severe crisis, squalid conditions in the “confinement” units and youth languishing in prison far beyond their release date due to a lack of community-based placements. To its credit, IDJJ allowed the three experts inside and is attempting to resolve the suit without costly litigation. Now, Quinn and all Illinois legislators and policymakers need to read these reports and pay close attention to the findings.

A close look at what's going on in Illinois could be instructive to other states with youth prisons. Because mass incarceration of youth in large prison facilities is a fatally flawed concept, other states likely have similar problems. There's no question that the evidence against massive incarceration is mounting. The unresolved question is what Illinois and other states can do to reduce incarceration. There, too, Illinois could become a model.

The ACLU lawsuit could produce great change, especially if the federal court can demolish whatever bureaucratic barriers have prevented IDJJ from delivering a quality education and from diagnosing and treating mental illnesses that brought so many into prison. However, the best way to “fix” the terrible conditions the reports describe is a dramatic reduction in the number of youth incarcerated. We must keep more youth in their homes, receiving the kind of supervision and services proven to reduce reoffending much more effectively and at a fraction of the cost of sending a youth to prison.

Here’s the road map to a smaller juvenile prison system:

  • Cook County fills many state prison beds with young men – between the ages of 18 and 21 – awaiting trial on a new adult charge. These young men are held for months at state expense due to a violation of parole connected to an earlier action as a juvenile. If they're going to trial on a more serious adult charge in Cook County, they ought to be held in Cook where they have better access to attorneys and where local taxpayers can pay the bill. IDJJ should refuse to accept them and put the dollars saved into better rehabilitative services for juveniles.

  • Redeploy Illinois has helped to lower youth prison numbers from 28 counties, which agreed to send 25 percent fewer young people to state prison in exchange for financial assistance used to deliver rehabilitative services in those counties. By all measures, this prison diversion program, which began in 2006, has been a success. This year, Quinn signed legislation tailor-made to ease Cook County into the program, but officials have dragged their feet. Cook County and others that commit large numbers of juveniles should be given a choice – participate in Redeploy Illinois or pay the state the nearly $100,000 annual cost of incarcerating a juvenile.

  • Today, 10 percent of the kids in an Illinois prison have been approved for release, but they remain behind bars because they aren’t welcome home, because the state places restrictions on where they can live or because they need substance abuse or mental health treatment and none is readily available. The state needs to step up the search for approved living arrangements and help create them when none are available.

  • About one half of the youth entering an Illinois prison last year were reincarcerated for violating the terms of their parole. Often, these were “technical violations” like failing to attend school or obey a curfew. Illinois needs to shorten the length of parole, which can last up to five years for some youth, and require technical parole violations to be addressed with more effective interventions than re-incarceration.

The “important strides” Illinois has made in juvenile justice reform should be the first steps in a marathon of wide-reaching reforms. We cannot afford to run in place.

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