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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011 03:01 pm

Juvenile prisons now safer and more effective

Understaffing and other problems still need work, reform group says

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Conditions in Illinois’ juvenile prisons are improving, according to one watchdog group, but problems of overcrowding, lack of education and inadequate staffing linger.

A report released Nov. 16 by the John Howard Association of Illinois, a Chicago-based prison reform group, shows the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) has made improvements in safety and rehabilitation services over the past year. Still, underfunding of the department and inconsistent oversight between facilities threatens to undermine efforts to return juvenile inmates to useful citizenship, the group says.

IDJJ was created in 2006 to separate youth offenders from adult inmates, in hopes that putting juveniles in a more rehabilitative environment would lower recidivism. The department currently holds nearly 1,100 youth in eight “youth centers” around the state.

In April 2010, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed merging IDJJ with the Department of Children and Family Services to allow the sharing of services and resources. The plan hasn’t been fully implemented, but some DCFS case management methods have been adapted to IDJJ, such as an “aftercare” system currently being tested in Cook County.

JHA notes that safety bunks have been installed in the juvenile prisons at St. Charles, Joliet and Harrisburg, prompted in part after a 16-year-old inmate hanged himself at the St. Charles facility in 2009.

IDJJ also designated the juvenile boys prison at Pere Marquette as a “step-down” facility, which refers to youth being moved to prisons with lower security levels as they progress through treatment. It’s the first time the state has used a designated step-down facility, the reform group says.

“Historically, while youth in DJJ who acted out could easily be stepped-up to higher security classification and transferred to another facility, youth were almost never stepped-down for good behavior,” the report notes. “For instance, the chances of a youth who was sent to Joliet, DJJ’s maximum-security facility, ever making it back to lower security classification were minimal. This was, in part, due to inaction, but also because the maximum-security classification marked the youth and caused lower security facilities to actively avoid such maximum-security transfers.”

The juvenile prisons are also understaffed and overcrowded, according to JHA. Replacing workers who retire or quit is a “long and tedious” process that takes several months, the group says, and the long delay means qualified applicants often take jobs elsewhere.

To reduce the population of the state’s juvenile prisons and stretch the department’s budget, low-risk youth offenders – those who commit nonviolent crimes or minor parole violations – should stay out of IDJJ completely, according to the report.

In January 2012, a new state law takes effect which will require juvenile courts to consider less restrictive alternatives than confinement before sentencing a youth offender to prison.

Meanwhile, a state-run program to provide rehabilitative services for youth offenders is slowly expanding across Illinois, according to Betsy Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative. Clarke, a member of the IDJJ advisory board, says the Redeploy Illinois program, which pairs youth offenders with services in their own communities, saves money and reduces recidivism [see “Redeploy Illinois keeps juveniles out of jail,” by Holly Dillemuth, at illinoistimes.com]. The program gives monetary incentives to counties that direct youth offenders into local rehabilitation instead of IDJJ.

Clarke said the board that oversees Redeploy Illinois is seeking proposals for expansion of the program, which currently operates in more than 20 counties.

“It’s a funding issue,” Clarke said. “Each county is allowed to do what it wants, but there hasn’t always been enough money for it. This request for proposals isn’t enough, but it’s certainly helpful.”

She said the juvenile prison population is on a slow but steady decline, thanks to reforms.

“This is a very thoughtful initiative,” Clarke said. The sites, before they come in, try to examine what works. It’s not just throwing money out there, and I think it’s having a bigger impact per dollar because it’s been so carefully implemented.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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