Department of Juvenile Justice helps youth become healthy, productive adults

We continue to distance ourselves from the legacy of a warehousing, corrections model and toward a more restorative, youth, family and community-centered model.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Director Heidi Mueller speak to Diasee Scott, 21, from Pullman, after a press conference at New Life Community Church in Little Village in July 2020.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Director Heidi Mueller speak to Diasee Scott, 21, from Pullman, after a press conference at New Life Community Church in Little Village in July 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Recently, a commentary from Alicia Brown was published in the Sun-Times, urging the public to not forget about youth behind bars. Here at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, we wholeheartedly agree. However, Ms. Brown’s commentary seems to make the same mistake a lot of people do: assuming that the Illinois Department of Corrections is the same as IDJJ.

IDJJ is a separate, independent agency, created in 2006 by a broad, non-partisan coalition of Illinoisans who recognized that locking children up in adult prisons was ineffective and harmful. Since then, we have gone to great lengths to reduce the harm of incarceration for youth in our care, and to focus on approaches that provide young people with tools to grow into safe, healthy and productive adults.

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Through our 21st Century Illinois Transformation Model, we continue to distance ourselves from the legacy of a warehousing, corrections model and toward a more restorative, youth, family and community-centered model.

Quarantining, while emotionally challenging for all young people, is an important tool to keep the youth at DJJ facilities safe. Our staff continue to go above and beyond to make sure that youth still have regular contact and engagement with their families, programs, volunteers and mental health providers.

Throughout the pandemic, IDJJ staff have worked overtime to make sure our schools continue to operate, and our youth receive the programs they need.Therapists and case managers have stayed late to make sure kids can participate in online college courses or fill out a job application.Facility administrators spent Christmas morning helping quarantined youth video-call their parents, and New Year’s Eve sharing pizza and doing puzzles with kids who couldn’t leave their units.Our staff vaccination rate is 79% and growing.

IDJJ has increased mental health services to support youth after release. We’ve also added more intensive mentorship with Rising Elevating and Leading (REAL) Mentoring, a promising program with 1-to-1 mentoring and a re-entry curriculum focused on best practices and the lived experiences of justice-involved youth.

We echo Ms. Brown’s urgent reminder that our children — including those in the justice system — are suffering tremendously through this pandemic.They need love, healing, restoration and support now more than ever. It is my hope that individuals in our great state will support and join IDJJ as we work to nurture and guide our young people toward safe, healthy and productive lives.We cannot afford to do anything less.

Heidi Mueller, director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice

The answer is vaccination

A reader asks for schools to “stop hindering unvaccinated students’ learning experiences.” There is an easy fix: vaccinate students.

It is easy and safe to do. Then students, and all people, can avail themselves of all experiences. It’s safe and easy to get vaccinated. Then you are welcome everywhere, and others know they aresafe because you are vaccinated. To do so is to be a good neighbor and a good citizen of this country.

Connie Orland, Plainfield

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