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Involving agency for adults leaves kids locked up too long

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On any given day, the state of Illinois has about 500 young people locked in six prisons where judges have sent them as a last resort, with the hope that they’ll return home rehabilitated and more likely to grow up to become responsible adults.

These kids are wards of the state, meaning they are our responsibility. They spend their days in counseling, doing schoolwork and wondering when they might be able to go home.

OPINION

There are no fixed sentences for youth. They don’t cross off days on a calendar or have any idea when they might leave prison. Unless they have committed the most violent of crimes (and very few have), they only know they will leave prison sometime before they turn 21.

Too often, these youths stay locked behind bars unnecessarily long because the state is asking the wrong agency — the Illinois Prisoner Review Board — to review their cases. We’re sponsoring legislation to change that, for these kids’ futures.

Our legislation would turn review and release decisions for youths to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, to bring Illinois in line with the rest of the nation.

Unlike sentencing of adults, youth sentences here and across the country are indeterminate, meaning youth remain in juvenile prisons until the state determines rehabilitation has been successful. Indeterminate sentencing makes sense, but the release decision method in Illinois does not make sense and is at odds with decision-making in every other state. More than three-fifths of the states allow the release decision to be made by the government entity that knows the children best – the state agency in charge of youth prisons and rehabilitation. Other states entrust juvenile court judges and parole board members who work exclusively with juveniles.

In Illinois, youth prison release decisions are controlled by the IPRB, whose 15 members spend the bulk of their time on adult prisoners and adults charged with parole violations.

Prisoner Review Board members are asked to make decisions about youth they are meeting briefly for the first time and based largely on information provided by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.

Illinois’ release process is delayed by adding the extra step of IPRB review. Delay has consequences for the youth and public safety. Spending too much time in a prison can cause a child to regress or interrupt the rehabilitation process that must continue when finally released.

The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice is the agency whose staff has spent the most time with the youth and knows them best. This will lead to better results. Let the IPRB focus solely on adults, and let’s put youth cases where they belong.

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