Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.
The youth detention center in Kewanee, Ill.
Mike Berry/Star Courier/AP | Caption

Illinois rethinks its approach to juvenile justice

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More than 100 years ago, Illinois became the first state to create a separate court for juveniles. Now, Illinois is once again changing the way it treats young offenders. Part 1 of 3.

  • Nissa Rhee
    Correspondent

When Charlie was 14 years old, he got in a fight at school. Charlie was no stranger to violence – as a member of one of the largest gangs in Chicago, he had seen his best friend shot and killed just the year before. But this was the first time he had been arrested for a serious crime. He was charged with attempted murder

Charlie was sent to Illinois Youth Center at Kewanee in 2009, a maximum-security detention facility for juveniles charged with violent crimes or suffering from mental health issues. Kewanee was three hours away from his home on the lower west side of Chicago, and he rarely saw his family during his nearly six-year incarceration. Staff members sometimes treated the juveniles more like adults than kids, he says, and his time there was marked by frequent lock downs. The facility was understaffed and they often did not have enough workers to let the young men out of their cells to eat in the dining room, socialize in the day room, or even attend classes at the center’s school.

“There were times when they were short on staff for first and second shift, so you didn’t see the light of day. You’re in your cell for the entire day,” says Charlie, who asked that his last name not be used because he is in the process of expunging his juvenile record.

This July, almost a year after Charlie was released, Illinois closed the troubled youth center. The move was part of a bigger plan by government officials here to dramatically change how young offenders are treated in the justice system.

In the past nine years, Illinois has reduced the number of incarcerated youth by 62 percent and shifted support to more community-based resources. The shift comes amid a growing nationwide consensus that juveniles do not benefit from adultlike incarceration. In Illinois, it was reinforced by the 2012 resolution of a federal class action lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Last February, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner promised to further reduce the state's overall prison population by 25 percent over the next 10 years.

Fears that reducing the juvenile prison population would lead to spikes in crime have proved unfounded. While police arrested over 38,400 juveniles for crimes in 2006, they have arrested less than one-third of that number so far this year. And while the number of homicides has risen dramatically this year – to more than 700 – the number of juveniles charged with murder has remained relatively consistent, with 38 charged in 2006 and 37 charged in the first 11 months of this year.

Officials in Illinois say they are committed to improving the state’s juvenile justice system following the closure of Kewanee. (It has been converted to an adult prison.) This includes reducing the number of youth behind bars. As of the end of July, there has been a 44 percent decline in the population of juveniles in Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) facilities.

A package of laws that went into effect earlier this year – including one that keeps young people charged with misdemeanors out of prison – may be contributing to this decline. The state’s financial crisis may also be playing a factor in the push for a smaller population. A study released last month found that incarcerating one young person in Illinois is 29 times more expensive than enrolling them in Redeploy Illinois, a community-based alternative program run by the state.

IDJJ's head predicted that the closing of Kewanee youth center would free up $14 million and allow the department to “be able to transition to developing smaller, regional treatment-focused facilities that are proven to be more effective in rehabilitating youth.”

Chicago created first juvenile court

Juvenile offenders have long been understood as needing a different approach than adults in the justice system. Illinois established the first juvenile justice court in the country in Chicago in 1899 with the purpose of rehabilitation rather than punishment.

In 2006, the state joined 39 others in formally separating its juvenile and adult correction systems. A new agency was created and young offenders were moved out of the Department of Corrections.

Despite the separate systems, however, juveniles in Illinois suffered from poor conditions and continued to be treated in many ways like their older counterparts. The ACLU lawsuit in September 2012 alleged that youth at IDJJ facilities had poor access to education and mental health treatment and were often idle. The ACLU also condemned the department for using solitary confinement, a practice that has been shown to be extremely harmful, especially for young people. 

“We don’t want something that looks like an adult prison facility just scaled down for juveniles,” says Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison watchdog that has long criticized how the state treats juveniles. “We want something that looks and is totally different and that is focused on getting these kids back on track.”  

Illinois agreed to a consent degree with the ACLU and remedial plan. Since then, the state has seen a cascade of reforms in the juvenile justice system, including the closure of the center in Kewanee.

A black mark on justice system

Kewanee has long been a black mark on Illinois’s justice system and emblematic of the challenges juvenile offenders faced once in the system. Its remote location in western Illinois meant youth living there rarely had visitors.

“It’s expensive to get there – it’s far,” Ms. Vollen-Katz says of Kewanee. Her organization regularly visited the center as part of its monitoring of Illinois’ juvenile justice system. “It cut the kids off even more from their families.”

Family engagement has been shown to play an important role in a young person’s rehabilitation, with family visits in particular improving an incarcerated young person’s academic performance and behavior.

When he got out, Charlie was not allowed to live with his parents and was placed in a halfway home instead. He missed his family so much that at one point he cut off his ankle bracelet in order to visit them, a move that sent him back to Kewanee youth center.

Kewanee’s remote location also contributed to the center’s understaffing. IDJJ had a hard time attracting qualified employees to the location and there was a lot of turnover. The center’s staff shortage led to the regular lock downs experienced by Charlie during this time there. Charlie recalls being so bored during one lock down that he and a friend in a nearby cell decided to count to a thousand.

“When you’re locked up in your cell, you’re just banging your head against the wall,” Charlie says. “There’s nothing to do. So that’s when you count to a thousand.”

ACLU attorney Lindsay Miller says that the lock downs are “traumatic in a number of ways” for incarcerated youth at Kewanee and other youth centers in Illinois.

“They become deflated and completely discouraged. There’s a sense of hopelessness, because even if you’re doing the right thing, you don’t know when you’re going to get an opportunity to communicate with other people, to communicate with your peers, communicate with staff, and get the help you need,” Ms. Miller says. 

Inadequate help for those with mental health challenges posed a third major problem. While the center was designated a special treatment facility for mentally ill youth, the staff shortage meant that Kewanee inmates received far less time with mental health experts than at the other centers in Illinois. Youth in crisis were often put in solitary confinement until they could receive help from mental health staff. Miller says that before the ACLU lawsuit, she would hear about kids going through severe mental health episodes being held in confinement.

Given these problems, both Miller and Vollen-Katz agree that closing the Kewanee youth center was an important step in the right direction for juvenile justice in Illinois. The next big challenge, they say, will be making sure the five remaining youth centers in Illinois improve their treatment of youth and that the state continues to divert more young people into community-based services, an approach that has gained support from prison reform advocates nationally in recent years.

A shift in justice, closer to home

In late October, a report out of the Harvard Kennedy School called for all youth prisons to be closed and for youth to be moved to community-based alternative programs. Some states, like New York, are already taking this route. New York's "Close to Home" initiative, which launched in 2012, moves youth in far away correctional facilities to residential or community-based programs closer to their families. The program has been lauded by criminal justice reform advocates. 

Since Charlie left Kewanee, he has been campaigning with other youth to change the justice system in Illinois. He says that he hopes others can learn from his experiences.

"As a teenager, you're in your prime, you're having fun, you're going out with your friends," Charlie explains. "But I couldn't live my life. And I knew these are part of the consequences and part of what I had to do. But it still stunk. I wanted to live my regular life."

Nissa Rhee is a 2016 John Jay/Solutions Journalism Network Fellow.

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Part 1: Illinois rethinks its approach to juvenile justice
Part 2: At America's largest juvenile detention facility, teaching kids to ‘think slow’
Part 3: New court aims to redefine youth justice in Chicago