VI. Department of Juvenile Justice
Over 10 years ago, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) was created as a stand-alone agency separate from the Illinois Department of Corrections, and the new IDJJ was directed to emphasize rehabilitation of youth rather than only punishment. Through a variety of legislative and administrative actions, the state’s youth prison population has been reduced from an average of 1,200 to under 400 youth today. This has resulted in the closing of three youth prisons. IDJJ now houses the remaining 400 youth in five prisons operating at less than half of capacity.
Should some of the existing underpopulated prisons be closed? Does the state do enough to keep youth out of prison and rehabilitate those sent to state prisons? How would you improve the juvenile justice system? How would you measure the success of DJJ and its aftercare programs?
Exposure to trauma, neglect, sexual assault, or abuse as a child can negatively impact adolescent brain development. Too often in our juvenile justice system, trauma is ignored and adolescent behavior is criminalized. We need to do more to ensure juvenile justice agencies are trauma informed and culturally competent. We also need to make sure they reflect the latest science indicating that significant brain development occurs well into a person’s twenties. This is particularly true in the area of the brain that controls risk-taking and impulsivity.
While adolescents are more likely to take risks and behave impulsively, their brains are also more open and responsive to education and rehabilitation. Recognizing this, we should focus on rehabilitative alternatives to prosecution and incarceration in our juvenile justice system.
Keeping adolescents out of the system will not only improve their own well-being, it also frees up resources we can use to invest in education and building community capacity. In 2016, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice spent $172,000 annually to incarcerate each youth. That is a staggering 29 times more than effective community-based alternatives to incarceration that cost an average of only $6,000 per youth, per year.
- Reform state agencies working with children to reflect the latest science:
- Ensure state agencies are trauma informed, culturally competent, and responsive to the latest science on adolescent brain development.
- Build community capacity and invest in protective factors that make communities strong:
- Increase state funding for public education, invest in early childhood education, expand access to quality healthcare with a public option plan, and restore and expand investments in after school programs.
- Reverse Bruce Rauner’s damage to human service agencies across our state by properly funding effective evidence-based programs like home visitation for at-risk youth, community-based mental health, and violence prevention and intervention.
- Keep families intact by diverting youth involvement with the juvenile justice system:
- Expand evidence-based youth diversion programs that address mental health, substance use, trauma, and other needs that may lead to negative outcomes.
- Partner with municipalities in the use of restorative justice as an alternative to prosecution and incarceration of adolescents.
I support examining the need to close or adapt DJJ facilities. I also support building on recent reforms designed to keep youth in community-based programs rather than in state facilities, as inappropriate or lengthy stays in confinement are known to be harmful and contribute to recidivism. Beyond improving and expanding diversion efforts and policies to keep juveniles out of adult justice systems, we should expand access to legal counsel and review our DJJ release approval system to investigate how to expedite decisions and improve youth access to legal counsel.
IDJJ has been part of a national trend to keep youth out of prison facilities. Since FY00, the average daily population in the youth prison facilities has decreased from approximately 2200 to 500. Unfortunately, IDJJ has not done as well with rehabilitating youth who have entered their facilities. The recidivism rate—youth who return to IDJJ within three years--hovers at an abysmal 60%. Although this high percentage may be attributable to an increased focus of incarcerating those youth with the highest needs, the state must put more attention to rehabilitation.
I would devote more resources to lower recidivism by improving the continuity of services for youth released from custody, especially mental health services. According to IDJJ, more than 60% of youth in IDJJ facilities receive monthly individual mental health services. However, when they return to the community, many of have trouble accessing support, including mental health services, financial support, and enrollment in school. This continuity of services would help facilitate their rehabilitation and likely reduce subsequent law violating behavior.
Over the last few years, IDJJ has made strides. I attribute much of this progress to the efforts of juvenile justice advocates. For example, the ALCU’s 2012 lawsuit and subsequent consent decree to ensure that IDJJ provides basic education, mental health, and safety should be applauded. For too long, we have been sending our youth back into the community worse off than when they received them. Aftercare has also made great progress in improving probation services, but the program is still young and more work remains to be done. The program must do better to ensure that youth receive the placements, services, and support they need. I commend the recent effort to establish day reporting centers to provide community-based graduated sanctions rather than simply returning youth to prison. But the state needs to evaluate the success of these efforts and take the successful models to scale.