Critics have said the system has been too punitive and too ineffective. More than half of youth who are released end up getting in trouble again.
Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton said change is needed.
“It’s time for a paradigm shift in how we treat the children in our justice system, children who are predominantly Black and brown, and more often than not are victims themselves,” Stratton said.
She added the state is shifting from a focus on punishment to one of equity and opportunity. For example, those in custody of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice are placed in one of five youth prisons hundreds of miles from family. Since they often come from poorer backgrounds, it can be more difficult for family members to travel for visits, especially if child care is necessary.
The new plan will focus on placing youth in smaller dormitory-like facilities closer to where they are from. These centers will be brighter, with better lighting, which Stratton said will be suitable for rehabilitation. The larger youth detention facilities will be transitioned to the Department of Corrections to house adults and reduce overcrowding.
The plan also calls for investing in wraparound support for youth being held in the system and victim support in communities beset by violent crime.
“As counsel for youth in custody of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, we hope today’s announcement is a further step forward to creating a humane and rehabilitative environment for young people in DJJ custody,” said Camille Bennett, Director of the Corrections Reform Project, ACLU of Illinois. “It is encouraging that today’s announcement focuses on bringing youth closer to home, and matching each youth with services they need.”
Stratton said the cost to taxpayers, under the current system, is higher with worse outcomes than a community-based approach.
She recalled a conversation with an incarcerated youth last year. “He said the system always asks us what did you do? I wish instead they would ask us what do you need?”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the juvenile justice system “rife with systemic racism.” Black youth account for 15% of the state’s population, but make up 70% of those incarcerated.
“We have treated children locked in the juvenile justice system, especially Black children, like they are less than human. Like they don’t need the same love, support and opportunity other children need to grow and thrive,” said Heidi Mueller, Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Director.
She said the plan is based on decades of research. The changes will happen in phases over the next four years.
“Racial disparities are widespread in the nation’s adult and juvenile legal systems, and that, unfortunately, includes Illinois. White youth are the minority and Black youth are the majority in Illinois prisons today. Blacks are less than 15 percent of the state’s population but more than 70 percent of the youth prison population. This racial injustice is an emergency,” said Julie Biehl, Director of the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.
“Our goal must be an end to the imprisonment of all children. No children of any race should be in prison cells surrounded by barbed wire and unable to visit their families. Illinois has come a long way in the reform of the juvenile justice, but more is left to be done.”