Guest Commentary: Locking up kids

Guest Commentary: Locking up kids


Champaign County courts send youths under 17 to state prisons at a rate more than six times as high as the state average. Between 2014 and 2016, only two small Illinois counties — Randolph and Mason — had higher rates.

What are these prisons like? What kinds of public safety protections and rehabilitative services do they offer? Could some of those youths have a better chance at successful rehabilitation with services in their communities and close to their families and school?

Despite Champaign’s central location, all five of the youth prisons operated by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice are a 2- to 3.5-hour drive away. Most Illinoisans will never see the outside of one, much less know what happens inside of them. There’s a good reason for this unfamiliarity. After all, these are prisons surrounded by razor wire fences, not state parks with welcome mats, and the youths inside deserve confidentiality protections. Because we expect the youths to mature into successful adults and shed their youthful mistakes, their privacy must be protected.

Although some lack of transparency is understood, that doesn’t mean taxpayers should not know more about the juvenile system, which includes the police, the courts, local detention centers — and IDJJ, which has a mission to rehabilitate the youths inside.

That’s why we at the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law have taken a deep dive into the workings of IDJJ and the statewide justice system that orders some youths into prison and helps others remain in their communities where they receive help changing their behavior. To its credit, IDJJ has expanded the data it shares with the public; has opened its doors to independent, outside inspectors; and has engaged legislators, judges, families of youths, and others in discussions of how best to prepare youths inside for success outside.

We recently released some our findings in the first installment of “Community Safety & the Future of Illinois’ Youth Prisons.” The research briefing series is the result of a multi-year endeavor, which included interviews with a wide variety of policy-makers, a survey of over 150 stakeholders, the collection and analysis of data about the state’s justice system, and an extensive review of academic and practitioner research.

Here’s a snapshot of our findings:

— Without sacrificing safety, the number of youths in prisons has dropped dramatically, from about 1,500 in 2006 to an average of about 425 today. Similar declines have been seen in other states, and Illinois is now close to the national average.

— Some counties send youths to prisons at a high rate. From 2014 to 2016, six of the 10 largest population counties outside the Chicago region — including Champaign County — committed youths to prison at rates higher than the national average.

— Until it was created as a stand-alone agency serving youth in 2016, IDJJ was a division of the adult-oriented Department of Corrections. The abandonment of IDOC’s punitive practices has been a slow and difficult process inside IDJJ.

— Significant legislative, administrative and litigation-driven changes have helped to support IDJJ’s mission and have contributed to a smaller and better-run department. IDJJ now supervises fewer youths, in fewer facilities, more appropriately, with less confinement and with more oversight. It also does more to assist youths leaving prison and to help them lead the kind of lives that will keep them out of prison and make our communities safer.

Results of reforms to date, while positive, are reaching the limit of their efficacy. In short, large, prison-like facilities are fundamentally incompatible with adolescent development and impede efforts to establish rehabilitative, family-centered and community-based approaches. It is crucial that courts have the ability to send youths to services that are more effective than incarceration. Further, any youths who are committed to state custody should be held in settings that are safe, support their rehabilitation, are therapeutic, and are close to their families.

We hope our research series will help Illinois policy-makers create a five-year plan for even more progress, which would mean safer communities, fewer youths in prison and high quality rehabilitation services throughout the state.   

Julie L. Biehl is director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago. The CFJC’s series “Community Safety & the Future of Illinois’ Youth Prisons” is available at

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SmarterCrimeControl wrote on February 13, 2018 at 9:02 am
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The evidence is clear and well known to WHO and other experts but unfortunately politicians and academics and $$ are lagging. 

This evidence shows the most effective and cost effective way to deal with crime is prevention.  All the rest is picking up the pieces.  Time for more politicians and academics to get to know the evidence and do the planning to make it happen.  It is upstream investments in well planned and executed comprehensive strategies that engage early childhood, youth outreach, jobs and smart policing that can save $7 for every $1. Upstream prevention is much more cost effective than rehabilitation. Prevention better than cure but cure OK. 

The US spends $80 billion a year to be the world´s gold medal jailor.  If it cut its rate of 680 today to that of Germany at 68 per 100,000, it would save $70 billion a year.  If it spent $30 billion a year on the proven and comprehensive strategies that some - not Chicago - mayors say they want, it would save $300 billion in harm to young men and women and children.