By George W. Timberlake
Most of the teenagers walking into my courtroom were first- or second-time visitors. They didn't want to return, and we worked with them and their parents to make that first visit their last one.
However, some kids need more support and intervention to change their life trajectories from negative to positive.
After seeing the same teens in court year after year, judges wonder what it will take to change the behaviors that keep bringing them back into court. Short of sending a youth off to a state prison, the options usually available to juvenile court judges include stern lectures and warnings, mandated community service, assessment and rehabilitative services, and electronic monitoring.
Sometimes judges reach a point where everything has been tried at least once, and yet the youth is again back in court with a new offense. When that happens, will the judge leave the youth with his or her family and try for rehabilitation again? Or will the judge think "been there, done that" and send the youth to incarceration far from home?
Sending any young person to prison can't be equated with sending your troubles away forever. They always return. And when they do, they go right back into the same home environment, same community, and same group of friends or gang.
A few months or even years in a juvenile prison rarely improve behaviors. Unless something has changed at home, chances are that juvenile will be back in court or will age into the adult courts.
Incarceration is an option whenever the teen poses a threat to public safety or his own safety. Otherwise, rehabilitative services are worth repeated attempts. They are far less expensive than prison and are more effective.
While every situation is different, families always are key to keeping sons and daughters out of trouble.
The youths brought repeatedly to juvenile court often have parents who had been in either the juvenile or adult system — or both. Judges, especially in rural areas like my own, come across generations of families in courtrooms. One or more family members appear in child welfare cases, domestic violence situations, small-claims court and every nook and cranny of the courthouse.
Because these families are involved in both the child welfare system and the justice system, we should involve both systems in solutions. Bringing community-based services to an entire family can help parents communicate with their children to resolve arguments and use appropriate discipline to address behavior problems. When social services involve the youth's entire family, other children in the home benefit as well, and we sometimes can prevent siblings from following the same path into the juvenile justice system.
Early investment in prevention and assistance, such as mental health counseling and treatment for drug addictions, can pay dividends for many years into the future. Breaking a family's cycle of juvenile and adult crime is an obvious benefit to public safety, but it also means those youths become productive citizens less likely to need other assistance or return again and again to expensive adult prisons.
In Illinois, we're beginning to apply those same lessons to the most challenging kids and families through Redeploy Illinois, which keeps kids out of state prisons, and through innovative aftercare programming for youths who do pass through those youth prisons.
In 2011, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) piloted an aftercare program for youths entering prison from Cook County, our state's largest county. By assigning specially trained aftercare specialists to work directly with youths and their families from the day they first enter prison until they leave and the months beyond, we can better prepare those youths to follow the law and continue in school.
This promising approach works with kids and families to plan for a safe and successful return home and to build support and strengths to keep kids in the community and out of costly and ineffective prisons. It's showing positive impact and is rightly being expanded across the state.
To complement IDJJ's aftercare specialists, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission funded a youth aftercare series pilot project partnering with well-established nonprofit family service agencies to give added services to youths returning to some of the state's toughest neighborhoods in Chicago and the East St. Louis region — communities sending the largest number of youths to the state's juvenile prisons.
Using $1.5 million in federal funds, the commission's aftercare projects test the impact of intense, family focused community services and support in keeping kids at home and out of prison.
Together, these projects are developing replicable models for working with young people at the "deep end" of the justice system.
These responses are even more successful when others in the community work with the juvenile justice system to reach teens in trouble. When service providers, including those outside the justice system like faith-based organizations and schools, are trying to help the same family and can collaborate, they can create an integrated and powerful response. Communities must come together to save our children.
Whether in prison or not, we can't give up on any young people. With the right supervision, support and services, all are capable of change and growth.
George W. Timberlake chairs the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. He was a judge for 23 years before retiring in 2006 as chief judge of the Illinois 2nd Judicial Circuit.