Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Report finds Illinois juvenile justice system is "failing"

By Jamey Dunn 

A new study has found that more than half of youth imprisoned by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice ended up back behind bars.

The report, released by the Juvenile Justice Commission today, said: “While precise data is difficult to come by — itself an indication of our current reentry shortcomings — it is clear that well over 50 percent of youth leaving Department of Juvenile Justice (DOJJ) facilities will be reincarcerated in juvenile facilities; many others will be incarcerated in the adult Department of Corrections (DOC) in the future.”

For seven of the last eight years, more than half of the incarcerated juveniles had been locked up over parole violations, such as truancy or curfew offenses. The report said, “On any given day, approximately 40 percent of incarcerated youth are technical parole violators.” The study found that 2 percent of all the incarcerated population was made up of offenders who committed a new crime while on parole. George Timberlake, chair of the commission and a former judge, said that many youth are going back to jail for “typical teenage” behavior.” The report said: "An essential measurement of any juvenile “reentry” system is whether youth returning from incarceration remain safely and successfully within their communities. By this fundamental measure, Illinois is failing." 

A 2009 law called for the commission to conduct the study and make recommendations on how DOJJ could do a better job of helping youth offenders become productive members of society. The state commission, which advises the DOJJ, looked into 230 prisoner review board hearings on juvenile cases and the cases of 400 juveniles whose parole had been revoked.

The report said a major problem is that the DOJJ, which was split off from the DOC, continues to use an adult parole system through the DOC. The commission said this one-size-fits all system is only geared toward policing youths’ behavior after release and does nothing to address their needs or help them make connections to schools, services, employment and their communities. “Responding appropriately to the differences between youth and adults does not require absolving youth of accountability for harmful behavior. Instead, it requires skilled professionals charged with moving a youth toward successful and safe return to the community,” the study said. Commissioners said that this failure of the DOJJ parole system to address the needs of youth and its focus on “surveillance” rather than rehabilitation contribute to the high rate of juvenile recidivism.

Timberlake said that parole hearings for youth, conducted by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, are brief — sometimes lasting only minutes — and the board gave many of parolees the same terms for release. “We found them rushed, to say the least,’ he said. “Often they were the same conditions time after time after time.” He said many children were not aware of their rights, did not have legal representation and did not understand the proceedings. The report found that the proceedings were improperly recorded, and there was no system to review or reassess the board’s decisions. The commission recommended that if a juvenile faces losing parole and going back to a detention center, a court and not the review board should make that decision. Timberlake said that moving such cases in the court system would mean about one more case a day in Cook County, which would have the most cases. He said as time goes on and fewer youth are in the system, because parole changes would help more stay out of detention centers, the number of cases gets even smaller. “When you look at the numbers, it’s very doable now. And when you look at the future, it’s not even a blip on the screen.” The report said that the review board should document its hearings more thoroughly, and a legal advocate should be on hand for youth that do not have a lawyer.

The report also recommended that parole conditions be tailored to each offender and offenders have individual plans to help them get back on their feet. Case plans might include access to mental health treatment, addiction services or family counseling after release. The report said that holding a youth behind bars for one year costs $86,861. Timberlake said that community-based services, such as counseling, cost between $4,000 to $7,000 a year. “The economic ripple effect of incarceration inflates taxpayer costs even more. In human terms, we must do better for our young people and our communities. In fiscal terms, we simply cannot afford to continue business as usual,” the report said.

Arthur Bishop, director of the DOJJ, said that his department is moving in the direction of many of the commission’s recommendations. “This report and these findings are definitely in line with the mission of the Department of Juvenile Justice under this administration, which is a change the culture.” He said that the department is working to move from a “punitive model” to “therapeutic, rehabilitative” process. Bishop said that linking incarcerated youth to community programs before they are released is key to trying to keep them from coming back to prison. “Those youth tend not to commit new crimes. Those youth then can become tax-paying citizens.”

Commissioners and Bishop acknowledge that it may be difficult to find the money needed to execute the commission’s recommendation during the current budget crisis. Bishop said a previous plan from Gov. Pat Quinn to merge DOJJ with the Department of Child and Family Services has been abandoned. But he said DOJJ is working with DCFS and other agencies to provide wrap-around services to youth offenders and their families and to try to recoup federal Medicaid dollars whenever possible. “I think in some ways, we’re not just having to add new money to accomplish this, but use some services more wisely," he said.

“Certain things will cost money up front,” said Julie Biehl, a commission member and director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University Law School.

However, she said: “It’s predicted it’s going to be saving money by not reincarcerating kids at the same rate. … Over time, I think you are going to see a tremendous cost savings to the state.”

The commission plans to release a fiscal analysis of its recommendations sometime in the next few months.


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