There is something about being first that can cause people to swell with pride. In Illinois, we have bragging rights on the world’s first skyscraper, the first Ferris wheel, the first deep-dish pizza and the first African-American president of the United States.
We’re also home to the nation’s first juvenile court. Unlike Illinois’ other firsts, this fact seldom ignites passion or even impresses many people. But over the past decade, those of us in the reform camp have used it repeatedly to implore policymakers to make the state’s juvenile justice system return to its original intent — a place where children aren’t treated like adult offenders and where punishment takes a backseat to rehabilitation.
After its founding in Cook County in 1909, the rest of Illinois and the nation implemented similar courts. Since then, the state lost sight of its original mission and succumbed to political pressures to pass tough-on-crime measures.
Our youth prisons became mini-adult prisons; unproven boot camps and scared straight reality shows surged in popularity; parole officers treated 15-year-olds the same as they treated 50-year-olds; and the state gave prosecutors the power to send minors straight to adult court. The system in Illinois fell short of its visionary past.
Despite missteps, the state has a unique opportunity right now. It has begun to redeem its past through policy changes that return the youth prison system to a rehabilitation model and, equally as important, support fiscal incentives like Redeploy Illinois that help local governments serve low-level teens closer to home.
Most recently, a remarkable set of juvenile justice reforms passed during the spring legislative session will do even more to restore the state’s reputation as a national leader in juvenile justice. Gov. Bruce Rauner and members of the General Assembly worked across the aisle to “rightsize” the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), to return discretion to juvenile court judges to decide if youth should be transferred to adult court for certain crimes and to guarantee that DJJ publicly reports annually on data critical to making sound policy decisions in the future.
Although DJJ was separated from adult Corrections in 2005, until recently the impact of that change was mostly limited to procedural and administrative change. The recently enacted legislation makes genuine and substantive policy changes that shift the paradigm on who we send to youth prison.
First, misdemeanants can no longer to be committed to the department. The current population of misdemeanants in deep-end custody is approximately 25 youth on any given day. Crimes such as disorderly conduct and trespassing, for which youth are currently incarcerated, will now be dealt with through county diversion, services or treatment under local probation.
Second, the department now houses approximately 60 individuals over the age of 17 who were under the department’s supervision in the community (aftercare) and were recommitted to a DJJ youth center for a new adult criminal charge while these charges were pending a final outcome. This unusual practice will stop, and pretrial individuals who fall into this category will now be detained at the local level pending trial and conviction.
Third, Illinois ended the practice of allowing youth released from prison to remain on supervised parole (aftercare) for lengthy indeterminate periods of time that could include up until age 21. The lengthy aftercare period was an invitation to parole violations, including minor technical violations, and subsequent return to a DJJ youth center. This practice alone accounted for more than 50 percent of readmissions to DJJ. Now, length of supervision on aftercare will be proportionate to the crime committed, allowing the agency to focus its post-release resources on those individuals who present that greatest threat to public safety.
A particularly dramatic change to the state’s juvenile justice policy is the rolling back of automatic transfer laws. Since 1982, automatic transfer has given prosecutors the discretion to decide whether an individual would be tried as a youth or as an adult. Those laws have resulted in thousands of youth being tried as adults, more than 80 percent of whom were African American.
Under the new law, for children 15 and under charged with a lesser offense, a juvenile court judge will determine if the youth should be tried as an adult. This is predicted to affect about 80 percent of the cases currently subject to automatic transfer, leaving older youth charged with serious crimes such as murder and violent sexual acts under the automatic transfer provisions.
An important element of this law is the requirement that the judicial system provide the General Assembly and public with annual data about how this new process has impacted youth and public safety. Coupled with the automatic transfer reporting requirement is another new law requiring more substantive data in DJJ’s annual reports to the General Assembly. This law will help lawmakers assess DJJ’s effectiveness and efficiency.
Illinois may well regain its place as a leader in juvenile justice as these laws are implemented. Far more important than Illinois’ reputation, however, is the impact the changes will have on the lives of children and their families, and on the resulting true progress toward achieving meaningful public safety in their communities.
Candice Jones is director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. Paula Wolff is director of the Illinois Justice Project, a civic organization developing and implementing policy initiatives and programs to reform the criminal justice system.
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