Cook County, home of the nation's first juvenile court, created in 1899, hasn't always had the best track record for dealing with young offenders.
A 1995 Chicago Tribune editorial deplored the local juvenile detention center's filthy conditions, unqualified staff, and children who "languish there like warehoused animals."
But these days, spurred by a state recidivism rate around 50 percent and research showing clear differences between the ways adolescents and adults cope with jail time, Illinois is rethinking its approach to juvenile justice.
In doing so, it's leading a wave of new policy approaches nationwide that emphasize rehabilitation and intervention programs over simple punishment and incarceration for youths, or the "scaring them straight" strategies favored by many during the 1990s crime waves.
The state's pilot programs and brand new Juvenile Justice Department were centerpieces of a MacArthur Foundation conference on juvenile justice reform this week – just a few days after the Department of Justice released new statistics showing that a record 7 million Americans, or 1 in 32 adults, is now in prison or on parole.
Other states, like Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Washington have been experimenting with similar programs.
"People have a sense that incarceration in itself, at the levels that we are incarcerating kids, doesn't necessarily work," says Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, which favors juvenile justice reform. "Because of the falling crime rates, because of the state budget crisis, which makes states look at how much they spend on the justice system, because of Roper v. Simmons [the 2005 Supreme Court case that made capital punishment illegal for offenders under the age of 18], and because of the research, we have seen a sea change."
The tougher approaches – including automatically trying kids as adults for certain crimes or imprisoning them for even minor offenses – were mostly spurred by the crime waves of the 1980s and early 90s, when fear of the young "super predator" was widespread.
A report by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency shows a 208 percent increase in the number of offenders under 18 serving time in adult jails between 1990 and 2004. Since it peaked in 1999 at close to 9,500 youths, that number has started to drop off, but reform advocates say it's still too high.
Of equal concern to many juvenile advocates is the willingness of some judges to ship kids to detention centers, even if their crimes are relatively minor.
Recent research has shown that adolescents perceive punishment fundamentally differently from adults, says Laurie Garduque, research director for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has funded many studies in the area. They're less inhibited, more impulsive, have a shakier understanding of consequences, are more susceptible to peer pressure – and are also far more receptive to rehabilitation efforts than adults.
"We know that having committed a serious crime [as a youth] doesn't mean you're on a pathway to becoming a career criminal," says Ms. Garduque. "We thought we could find a third way in this polarized debate, with the adult [jail time] that were being adopted by states and advocates saying that the juvenile justice system had lost its way."
As a result, MacArthur has invested close to $100 million in state juvenile justice reform, particularly in programs that focus on alternatives to secure detention centers, which critics say can turn a minor delinquent into a more hardened criminal.
In Illinois, advocates are hoping that the new Department of Juvenile Justice – separate from the Department of Corrections – will help change a culture that gave little thought to rehabilitation and has a recidivism rate close to 50 percent.
"The whole juvenile justice system in Cook County is now trying to divert kids from going deeper into the system," says Paula Wolff, a senior executive at Chicago Metropolis 2020, a nonpartisan think tank.
At Chicago's brand-new Juvenile Intervention Center police can bring youths in for assessment, and workers spend time trying to match kids up with social or mental-health services.
"Rules without relationship breeds rebellion," says Azim Ramelize, assistant commissioner for the Chicago Department of Children and Youth Services. Mr. Ramelize, a former gang leader who eventually attended law school, says he knows first-hand the ways in which the system often fails troubled kids. He and the center connect the teens with mental-health services, alternative schools, and community or church programs that meet those needs.
Focusing on rehabilitation, makes financial sense as well, advocates say. The cost of incarceration in the state is now more than $70,000 a year per juvenile – seven times the state's budget for K through 12 education, and significantly higher than the proposed rehabilitation and prevention programs.
"The kids whose mental health needs are diagnosed and treated, they have extraordinarily low recidivism rates,"says George Timberlake, who retired as chief judge of the state's Second Circuit Court last week. "We're trying to show communities and states attorneys that you can be smart on crime without being tough on crime – that you can use intelligent responses instead of punitive responses, and achieve a better result."