by Jamey Dunn
Just a few months ago, it looked as if the scandal surrounding the “Meritorious Good Time Push” prisoner-release program could cost Gov. Pat Quinn a win in the primary election. Under the program, exposed by the Associated Press in December, the Illinois Department of Corrections was awarding prisoners months of early release time for good behavior in the first few days of their sentences, thus returning some violent offenders to the streets after they spent just a few weeks behind bars.
Quinn, who went on to win the primary, called the program “a mistake” at a Chicago news conference. “The revolving door is something we have to deal with,” he said.
Problems such as overcrowding, understaffing and consistently high recidivism rates in Illinois’ prison system are nothing new. However, scandals such as the “MGT Push” program highlight the need for comprehensive long-term reforms. Perhaps the state that housed the first juvenile court, established in Cook County in 1899, should begin by reforming its juvenile justice system to get young people off a trajectory of crime and institutionalization as early as possible.
Separating the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2006 created an opportunity for the state to rehabilitate youth offenders. The goal is to get them out of the revolving door of the corrections system as early as possible by attempting to help them become productive adults. However, after that first step, little has been done to create systematic change in the way youthful lawbreakers are treated.
The intention of the split was to create a system that treated youth offenders differently from adults. The plan was to focus on comprehensive treatment for adolescents and get to the root of what made them break the law in the first place. The John Howard Association, a prison reform group based in Chicago, released a report early this year assessing the status of the department’s efforts to fulfill its mission.
According to the report: “The vision guiding the creation of the new Department of Juvenile Justice called for the creation of a correctional agency founded on the principles of balanced and restorative justice that would provide age- and gender-appropriate rehabilitative treatment delivered in a culturally competent manner to all youth committed to its care. To date, that vision has not yet been realized, nor supported with resources.”
The report highlights overcrowding in some juvenile corrections facilities. At some institutions, staff-to-inmate ratios are 1-to-24 during daytime hours and 1-to-60 at night. According to the association, levels recommended for best practices are one staff member to every eight to 10 kids.
Complaints about the conditions of youth detention came to a head after the suicide of a 16-year-old last fall at a youth center in St. Charles. “We suspect some facilities are just totally inadequate,” says former Judge George Timberlake, chairman of Quinn’s Juvenile Justice Commission. The commission is working with a national panel to visit and assess the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Timberlake says the members plan to make recommendations this spring.
The report also criticizes the Department of Juvenile Justice for continuing to use the adult parole system. Parole officers carry heavy caseloads, and their primary objective is enforcement. For the most part, all they do for youth offenders is make sure they are not violating conditions of their parole.
Parole officers in the adult system do not have the resources and are not charged with helping kids transition back into society. Without such guidance, many youth offenders violate their parole or commit another crime and end up incarcerated again. The recidivism rate for Illinois’ juvenile justice system is more than 50 percent.
“Most youth entering the criminal justice system are lacking in even the basic social skills that most noncriminal youth take for granted. These skills do not develop spontaneously; they need to be taught and practiced,” the report says.
Timberlake agrees that the Department of Juvenile Justice still has a long way to go toward becoming completely independent of the Department of Corrections. “In many, many ways, it hasn’t changed much. … It’s a huge transition. They have almost no administrative staff.”
Juvenile justice reformers say the first step is changing attitudes about locking up kids who pose little risk to their communities.
Part of the reason for slow-moving change may be that incarceration has been the primary option for so many years. “[Detention centers] are what we’ve got, so that’s what we use,” Timberlake says.
Betsy Clarke, president of the advocacy group Juvenile Justice Initiative, agrees it is difficult to change the inertia of the juvenile justice agency because for so many years, it was part of the Department of Corrections, which focused primarily on incarceration and punishing crime. “We have run the corrections business for so long, and it is hard to get away from it.”
However, experts on all sides of the system agree that when possible, it is best to keep kids out of detention facilities in the first place. “The kids are made more likely to re-offend just by bringing them into the court system,” Ogle County State’s Attorney John Roe says.
Timberlake and Roe say one important component is having kids assessed as soon as they enter the system. Instead of focusing wholly on the crime, the agency would seek to learn if it could be a symptom of another problem, such as mental illness, drug dependence, abuse or neglect. “All of those things can lead you deeper and deeper into a criminal lifestyle,” Timberlake says, but “identified and treated … the criminal part of it goes away.” He adds that plans for helping kids get back on track and into their communities should start to be developed as soon as they are arrested.
Those working to keep low-level youth offenders out of detention centers say that connection to the community is the most important factor when it comes to rehabilitation. A few pilot programs across the state operate under that concept. They try to remove kids from the system as early as possible and filter them into community-based programs. Redeploy Illinois is one such program. According to the Department of Human Services, in the three years of its existence, Redeploy Illinois has reduced the number of juvenile offenders incarcerated from the counties it serves by more than 50 percent.
Such programs seek to help kids find connections and worth in their communities, so they can find ways to better their own lives and also feel a responsibility to those around them. They attempt to give kids reasons to abide by the law other than the threat of being locked up, which clearly did not deter them in the first place.
Another pilot project that is trying to set an example is the Models for Change program. Sherri Egan, director of Ogle County Juvenile Justice Council, says the program has been a big success in her county. “What people need to realize is, when you send these kids away [to be incarcerated], they are coming back to your community,” she says.
Roe agrees that the program has made Ogle County safer. “Our success has come from reaching out to the community and getting them to accept the program. … You’ll find that your community cares about the kids,” he says. “We are seeing the fruits of our labor.”
Programs like those cost the state less than incarcerating youth offenders. According to the Department of Corrections, keeping someone in a youth corrections center costs about $85,000 per year. Clarke estimates that a community- based program would cost less than $10,000. She says the individual costs would vary because each plan would be geared specifically toward each youth’s needs. “They are a heck of a lot cheaper than [incarceration],” Timberlake agrees.
Being deferred into community programs is not an alternative for all kids. Violent offenders would still need to be incarcerated and treated in a safe environment. However, removing lower-risk offenders from detention centers would help to ease overcrowding and create safer facilities.
“If you want to help a kid and reach a kid who is tough to reach, if you want them to overcome a substance abuse problem, if you want them to get mental health treatment, if you want them to get a GED, that all begins with the kids knowing that they are in a safe and secure environment,” says Anders Lindall, spokesman for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Experts agree that mixing low-level offenders with more serious ones boosts the chances that lower-risk kids will break the law again after release.
The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice is starting to recognize the merits of such programs. “We do believe that community corrections is probably the better way to go,” says Januari Smith, spokeswoman for the agency, as well as for the Department of Corrections.
Reforms to the state’s juvenile justice system can help break the cycle of criminal behavior and get kids — who may have a better shot at rehabilitation than adults — out of the corrections system. If youth offenders can be guided toward becoming productive adults instead of being locked up, it could take the strain off correctional centers and strengthen communities. Over time, it could also have a positive impact on the adult corrections system.
“Punishment by itself will not change behavior,” Timberlake says. “We keep sending kids to prison, and they keep coming out worse than we sent them — and we just keep sending them more kids.”
Illinois Issues, March 2010