Illinois Justice Project
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Task Force Presents Action Plan to Help Youth with Mental Conditions

Feb. 28, 2018 - Press Release

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Recommendations would put youth on road to recovery, prevent further contact with the justice system and return youth to school, work and family

SPRINGFIELD, IL — A state task force on Wednesday delivered a final report recommending 14 action steps to deliver needed services and help keep youth with mental health conditions out of jails and prisons.

“Of the nearly 30,000 youth arrests and 11,000 youth admissions to local jails in Illinois each year, research consistently suggests that approximately 70 percent meet the diagnostic criteria for having a mental health condition, and at least 20 percent live with serious mental health condition, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, and other conditions that severely impair their ability to function,” according to the report by the Illinois Mental Health Opportunities for Youth Diversion Task Force.

“Frequently, a youth’s disruptive or illegal behavior is related to symptoms of a mental health condition that has gone undetected and untreated,” the report states. “Instead of treating these instances as an opportunity to connect these youth to effective community-based mental health services they are too often directed toward law enforcement. These youth – the majority who have lives already marred by racism, poverty, and violence – then cycle through jails, probation offices, courts, and prisons. The opportunity to divert youth early is wasted, and youth end up in a system that is ill-equipped to provide the necessary treatment.”

The task force made the following recommendations:


 The state should:

  • improve mental health screenings for early identification of youth at risk of mental health conditions;
  • invest in early intervention for serious mental health conditions and maximize Medicaid and private insurance benefits;
  • expand screening and provide adequate funding for the Illinois Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Services (CCBYS) program, which is a statewide network of well-qualified professionals responding 24/7 to youth and families in crisis; and
  • provide training to help community members recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions and identify resources for services and treatment.



The state should:

  • encourage training and expand use of Crisis Intervention Teams to improve the outcomes of interactions between law enforcement and individuals living with mental illness;
  • implement a diversion program that avoids the use of arrests for misdemeanor offenses committed by youth living with mental health conditions;
  • help implement best-practices to assess the mental health of youth at arrest; and
  • create a pilot project to evaluate effectiveness of police releasing youth through “station adjustments” as an alternative to referring the case to juvenile court.



  • Illinois should expand the use of juvenile mental health courts to connect more youth with support services and appropriate treatment.



To help youth returning from prison succeed, the state should:

  • restore funding for the Mental Health Juvenile Justice Program, which contracts with community mental health agencies to provide services to improve the clinical condition of those youth;
  • ensure eligible returning youth are enrolled in Medicaid before their release;
  • make certain there is no interruption in services and needed medication after release;
  • make certain returning youth avoid homelessness by helping them secure housing and income upon release; and
  • develop a case management system to track not just recidivism rates but also data that would inform taxpayers about whether their dollars are protecting public safety and helping youth become crime-free and productive adults.

Created by state statute in 2017, the task force was charged with developing an action plan for new or expanded diversion programs aimed at youth living with mental health conditions in Illinois. Task force members include state legislators and representatives of law enforcement and mental health service providers. The full report, “Stemming the Tide: Diverting Youth with Mental Health Conditions from the Illinois Juvenile Justice System,” is available on the websites of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Chicago ( and the Illinois Justice Project (



by Paula Wolff and Victor Dickson
Guest Columnists
as appears in the Daily Herald on October 5, 2017

Prisons have been filled beyond capacity for so long that overcrowded prisons are now the norm in Illinois, and meaningful rehabilitation is a rarity. Policymakers can debate whether prisons exist for punishment, isolation, retribution or rehabilitation, but we must face the fact that -- no matter why so many people are in prison -- nearly every person sent to prison (98 percent) eventually will leave prison. Every week, hundreds of men and women leave Illinois prison cells and return to their home communities where they will have to follow parole requirements or be returned to prison. While prison may sound like an incentive to abide by parole, it is difficult for many returning prisoners.

Some 28,000 people leave Illinois prisons each year, and each one needs help. They must look for a job, continue with education, get treatment for any mental illness or addiction, have meetings with parole agents and submit a monthly written report on compliance. Otherwise, they return to prison. These conditions suggest we expect people leaving the criminal justice system to become responsible citizens.

With a public criminal record, much of that is hard to do, but help is on the way. Passed by a bipartisan coalition of Illinois lawmakers and recently signed into law by Gov. Rauner, a package of justice reform bills aims to give second chances to youth and adults who have been in the criminal justice system.

Some of the key improvements:

  • Juvenile records are supposed to be private, but weak confidentiality protections have led to broad sharing of records and prevented young people from obtaining jobs, housing and education. By setting statutory penalties for unlawful sharing of juvenile records, the Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act will help young people keep mistakes of their youth in their past.
  • The process of expunging juvenile records has been so expensive and difficult that only a tiny fraction of young people have been able to take advantage of expungement laws allowing some records to be erased. The new Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act eases the expungement process for the thousands of young people merely arrested each year, most for nonviolent offenses and many never even charged with any offense but still saddled with an arrest record.
  • For adults, another bill in the package expands sealing, removes some records from public view without destroying the ability of law enforcement to access the records. Safeguards are in place to protect public safety and require court approval.
  • Because many jobs require a state license and those licenses often are denied due to the applicant's past criminal record, many men and women have been shut out of living wage work. One of the enacted bills creates a new license review process in more than 100 occupations and requires state license regulators to consider applicants' rehabilitation instead of focusing solely on their conviction record.

We expect people leaving our prisons to become responsible members of society. We can help them by making sure a past record is not a barrier for those who do not pose a threat to public safety. Based on this principle, the legislative changes will help make our communities safer and allow people to move on once they have paid their debt to society.

Legislative changes only set the stage. It takes people like you to extend the offer of a second chance. Please consider ways you can help returning citizens create brighter futures.

Victor Dickson is President of the Safer Foundation. Paula Wolff is Director of the Illinois Justice Project.


Open Data Can Be Downloaded for Deep Dive

by Illinois Justice Project Staff
July 1, 2016

A new website,, will increase public awareness of the overrepresentation of minority Chicago youth in the juvenile justice system and provide open source data for research by community members and journalists, eventually leading to changes in practices and policies.

The new website will call attention to the overrepresentation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system and provide factual and easy-to-access data from verified public data sources.

“The site is targeted to inform youth, provide them with tools to become engaged in policy reform efforts and provide resources to help them overcome the collateral consequences of having an arrest record,” said Era Laudermilk, Deputy Director of the Illinois Justice Project.  

Some visitors will be surprised to learn that black youth make up only 42 percent of Chicago’s youth population but account for 79 percent of arrests and 87 percent of imprisonments. 

“The website is intended to encourage a public discussion of inequity: for example, while black and white youth have the same rate of marijuana use, blacks are arrested far more often,” Laudermilk said. “The website also is a resource to spur discussion of how to develop and implement policies and practices to reduce disproportionate minority contact, as well as information to help kids in trouble stay out of trouble.” 

Read the news release HERE.


by Sharone Mitchell, Jr. 
Letters to the Editor
as appears in the Chicago Sun-Times on January 15th, 2017

Mayor Emanuel’s recent commentary (“4,368 shootings have neither one cause nor one cure”) deserves praise for presenting a broad-based vision for violence reduction. The issue is complex, and there is no easy fix.

The mayor is right that those responsible for the city’s epidemic of gun violence must be held accountable. But let’s be sure any new laws accomplish that without making our neighborhoods less safe, which is a possible unintended consequence of his call for longer prison sentences for people possessing – not firing – guns.

For those charged with possessing an illegal gun — perhaps to protect themselves in communities where they believe law enforcement cannot or will not do that – the city should use all the other remedies the mayor suggests and more to increase community safety and to prevent that person from feeling forced to rely on an illegal gun for protection.

For those who murder or maim people using guns, the city should step up enforcement and solve more murders. More than four in five homicides didn’t even result in an arrest.

The people not held accountable today are those who – with no state supervision – sell the guns that are recovered in embattled communities that suffer from what the mayor calls the “scourge of gun violence.”

Illinois already has tough sentencing laws for gun crimes of illegal possession, aggravated assault and murder.  What we don’t have is a way for those who sell the thousands of illegal guns to be held accountable. In his September speech on public safety, the mayor called for state legislation to license gun shops, which supply almost half of the illegal guns in the city.

We beseech him to throw his substantial political muscle behind this bill and face down the NRA. Put the rogue dealers out of business.


by Illinois Justice Project Staff
November 3rd, 2017

The Illinois Justice Project and nearly 50 other community groups and criminal justice reform advocates have issued a report urging Chicago’s elected leaders to reject reactionary and unproven crime fighting policies and instead attack the root causes of violence with a comprehensive crime prevention plan. 

“Building a Safe Chicago” argues against mandatory minimum prison sentencing schemes and in favor of a comprehensive plan that should include:

  • Expansion of community-based programs to improve social conditions that have led to increased demand for illegal weapon possession; 
  • Reduction in illegal handgun availability by regulating gun shop owners; 
  • Reduction in gun possession charges by identifying and addressing the causes of the repeat offenses; 
  • Enactment of the reforms advocated by Mayor Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force; and 
  • Economic development initiatives in high poverty neighborhoods. 

Read full report HERE

Summary HERE

News release HERE