Other Issues Race

Illinois Plans Overhaul of Juvenile Justice System to “Reduce the Harm of Incarceration”

On Friday, Governor JB Pritzker announced a four-year plan to overhaul the Illinois juvenile justice system by transferring incarcerated children out of large prison-like facilities and investing more in restorative justice practices.

The plan would repurpose the state’s five large juvenile facilities and move the children detained there to small residential centers based in their communities, making family and friend visits easier. These new “dorm-like, youth-friendly” facilities would hold no more than 50 detainees. State officials said the purpose is to “reduce the harm of incarceration.”

“We cannot continue to be a country that criminalizes the children who need the most help,” Lt. Gov. Juliana 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.”

The announcement was made in front of New Life Community Church in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, the site of the fatal shooting of a young man last month. Two teenage boys, 15 and 16, have since been charged with murder as adults.

During the press conference, state leaders cited the failure of the current system as the reason for the reforms. They characterized the current system as “downright racist” and ineffective.

State Senator Heather Steans (D-Chicago) pointed out that 70 percent of children in juvenile detention are Black, even though Black people make up about 15 percent of the state’s population. Nationwide, Black children are four times more likely and Latinx children are three times more likely to be committed to juvenile detention centers than young white people. This has a devastating effect on communities of color.

The overly punitive system was also unsuccessful at reducing crime or rehabilitating young people. Between 2010 and 2018, approximately 55 percent of the children released by the state’s Department Juvenile Justice system ended up back in that same 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,” said Pritzker.

The new model would be based on the tenets of restorative justice. Rethinking the way that juvenile justice is conceptualized is necessary to end the cycle of violence, Stratton said, stressing that perpetrators of violence are often also victims themselves.

The plan would also increase investments in social welfare, crime intervention, and victim services, especially in communities that experience higher levels of violent crime.

Camille Bennett, the director of the Corrections Reform Project at the ACLU of Illinois, said she felt hopeful this would be a “step forward to creating a humane and rehabilitative environment for young people in [Department of Juvenile Justice] custody.”

In 2012, the ACLU sued the state on behalf of children in juvenile justice facilities, alleging unconstitutional conditions and services. The lawsuit detailed cruel conditions in which some children were held in filthy jail cells for up to 23 hours a day. The lawsuit also accused the Department of Juvenile Justice of failing to offer adequate education or mental health services.

Despite this contentious relationship, Bennett said that the ACLU would work with the state to “create a system that truly seeks to recognize and develop the potential in young people committed to their care.”

“Now the real work begins,” she concluded in her statement.

Sources: Chicago Sun Times 7/31/2020; CBS Chicago 7/31/2020; WTTW 7/31/2020

Support eh ERA banner