State leaders Friday announced a four-year plan to overhaul a juvenile justice system they described as racist and ineffective, and focus more on restorative justice practices.
The plan would repurpose the state’s five large juvenile facilities and move detainees to smaller, community-based residential centers, as well as increase investments in social and intervention services. State officials said the idea is to “reduce the harm of incarceration.”
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton announced the 21st Century Illinois Transformation Model at New Life Community Church, 2657 S. Lawndale Ave. in the Little Village neighborhood, where since the start of the month at least two teenagers have been shot and murder charges were announced against two teenage boys in a gang-related attack.
Rethinking the way juvenile justice is carried out is necessary to end the cycle of violence in such communities, Stratton said, adding that the perpetrators of violence are often also victims themselves.
“We cannot continue to be a country that criminalizes the children who need the most help,” Stratton said. “We need to help our young people heal, to redirect their energy, to realize their potential and foster their dreams. It is time for a change.”
Stratton said the plan continues the leadership the state has shown in the past on juvenile justice, including creating the first juvenile court system.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker described the current system as being built on “an antiquated theory of juvenile incarceration” that led to the building of, “large, stark, razor-wired, warehouse-like facilities built far away from the homes and families of the children who will eventually return to their communities.”
That system was overly punitive as well as ineffective, the governor said, noting that between 2010 and 2018, about 55% of kids released by the state’s Department Juvenile Justice ended up back in the system.
“The facilities that should in theory be nurturing children and rehabilitating them in their adolescence instead exacerbate the trauma, interfere with their family relationships and create a culture of instability and violence,” Pritzker said.
Under the model, the smaller juvenile facilities would hold no more that 50 detainees and would look more like college dorms. Such facilities could be built closer to juvenile offenders’ homes, making family visits easier.
The model also increases financial support for victim services, particularly in communities disproportionately impacted by violence, Pritzker said.
State officials also pointed to the disproportionate impact of the current system on communities of color.
State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) called the current system “downright racist” after the governor earlier said 70% of juvenile detainees are Black, even though they make up 15% of the state’s population.
Department of Juvenile Justice Director Heidi Mueller said the old model “treated children involved in the justice system, especially Black children, like they are less than human.”
Reform groups commended the plan, including the ACLU of Illinois, which sued the state eight years ago over conditions at juvenile facilities.
“We hope today’s announcement is a further step forward to creating a humane and rehabilitative environment for young people in [Department Juvenile Justice] custody,” Camille Bennett, the director of the organization’s Corrections Reform Project, said in a statement.
“Now the real work begins,” Bennett added.