Opinion: Four more steps to keep juveniles out of Illinois prisons

SHARE Opinion: Four more steps to keep juveniles out of Illinois prisons

Illinois’ recent announcement that it will close a half-empty, outmoded youth prison in Downstate Kewanee is the latest step in a decade-long reform of our state’s juvenile justice system.

The transition began in 2005 when a group of nonprofit leaders, advocates, attorneys and elected officials came together to persuade state policymakers to stop treating at-risk youth like adults and, instead, create an Illinois system informed by research into adolescent development — a system successful in practice in Missouri and a few other states.

OPINION

After lengthy negotiations with legislators and the governor’s Office, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ), was created as a stand-alone state agency designed to focus on the unique needs of youth and to stop the revolving door from juvenile to adult imprisonment.

The effort succeeded to a degree. More work is needed, however, including following through on moving youth from the Kewanee prison to mental health treatment, education and other services at the state’s five other youth prisons and devoting some of the cost savings to increased spending on more rehabilitative services to youth in their home communities.

A decade of greater emphasis on rehabilitation has significantly reduced IDJJ’s population, bringing it to an all-time low. During the decade, IDJJ’s population has gone from more than 1,600 to fewer than 450; two juvenile prisons were closed; and Kewanee should be next to close. Just as encouraging as the plan to close Kewanee is the commitment of IDJJ Director Candice Jones “to transition to developing smaller, treatment-focused facilities that are proven to be more effective in rehabilitating youth.”

The leadership team, the focus, and the strategy are in place. As IDJJ celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year, the time is ripe to build upon the successful collaboration in 2005 and re-engage policymakers in continuation of the transition and the following four goals:

  • The Kewanee prison must close, and the Rauner Administration must carry through on its promise to reinvest some of the cost-savings in community-based programming.


  • Lawmakers must continue their work limiting commitment of juveniles to state prisons. Youth committing non-violent offenses should not be sent to state prisons, and the current cumbersome process for releasing youth from prisons should be streamlined.


  • IDJJ must examine all its facilities to see where it can strengthen programming, improve outcomes and efficiencies, and unnecessary and expensive (over $100,000 annual per bed cost) beds should be eliminated as IDJJ’s youth population declines.


  • Gov. Rauner and the General Assembly must pass a budget and give priority to funding proven community-based programs, like Redeploy Illinois, that effectively rehabilitate low-risk youth outside of costly locked facilities.

If those changes are made, IDJJ can focus all of its resources on only the highest-risk youth, who require secure commitment, and local community leaders and service providers to work with low-risk youth in their own communities.

If we spend our money the right way, youth, their families and communities will be safer and more productive. By closing expensive facilities and putting that money into communities, young lives will be turned around, rather than end in violence.

Paula Wolff is director of the Illinois Justice Project.

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