State of the State: Juvenile Justice System in Illinois Still Struggling

Dec 1, 2013

Jamey Dunn
Credit mattpenning.com 2014 / WUIS/Illinois Issues
When the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice split from the state’s Department of Corrections in 2006, it moved forward with a distinct mission: recognize that youth offenders have different needs than adults and address those needs with the goal of helping them turn their lives around.

The philosophy was more about rehabilitation than punishment, and the department was intended to employ best practices and an evidence-based approach to helping troubled children become productive citizens. “The idea behind this change was not just to create a new state agency. More importantly, it was to establish a juvenile justice system rooted in the latest developments in science, psychology and law, and dedicated to providing troubled youth with individualized and comprehensive services designed to safely and successfully return them to their communities,” said a recent report form the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based corrections watchdog group. 

But in the years since its inception, the department has been the focus of negative report after negative report. Recent evaluations found that youth remain behind bars past their release dates because there is no place for them in aftercare programs. Incarcerated youth mow lawns and do other menial tasks when they should be in school. Parole hearings can be fast and confusing. Many youth lack legal representation and waive rights that they don’t understand. More than half of youth leaving the juvenile justice system will return or end up in the Department of Corrections. Staffing levels are low, and facilities are unable to provide adequate mental health care. 

But the most shocking revelation about the state’s juvenile detention centers came in a report issued by the U.S. Justice Department last summer. The anonymous survey of incarcerated youth found that 15 percent of them had experienced some form of sexual victimization — either from other detainees or staff — while locked up, and 13.7 percent reported staff sexual misconduct. The national rate of victimization was 9.5 percent, which had dropped from 12.6 percent in 2008, when the survey was first conducted.

The state has entered into a consent decree as a result of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Under the agreement, the department will work with the ACLU to improve education, safety and mental health treatment at the state’s youth centers. As part of the court order, three national experts made a comprehensive analysis of the system. These reports are a good first step. Their findings confirmed the problems that many reform advocates had suspected and also helped to capture the voices of the youth living in the state’s juvenile detention centers. However, full-time ombudsmen would be a step further in the right direction when it comes to oversight of the system. 

Over the same period that the Justice Department survey took place, the state Department of Juvenile Justice counted the sexual assaults at less than 1 percent. After the national survey found the rate to be much higher, the department sought recommendations from a consulting firm to address the issue. The group’s report noted that it was nearly impossible to truly determine the amount of sexual abuse going on in Illinois youth centers because victims and staff are underreporting it. The report also noted that there was “inconsistent and inadequate investigative record keeping.” Many of the recommendations pertained to additional monitoring and oversight of facilities, including the use of a camera system and bringing in outside experts and investigators who are independent from specific facilities.

While most of the recommendations would likely be pricey, an ombudsman could be put in place with relatively little cost. The move would immediately give incarcerated youth an advocate and put those who would abuse them on notice. Senate Bill 2352 would create such a position. Under the bill, the governor would appoint the ombudsman to a four-year term. He or she would be allowed access to juvenile justice facilities at any time without having to call ahead. The ombudsman would meet regularly with youth, both those incarcerated and in aftercare, on a confidential basis. The ombudsman would investigate and attempt to resolve grievances and would also be required to report to the Illinois State Police any suspected crimes, such as abuse or ethics violations, occurring in the system. The Illinois House approved the legislation during the General Assembly’s fall veto session, and it awaits a vote in the Senate.

The department has said it is considering creating an ombudsman as part of the changes that are coming under the consent decree. The position was part of the vision for the department when it broke from IDOC. “When we created the Department of Juvenile Justice, one of the fundamental ideas was an ombudsman, and that didn’t happen,” George Timberlake, chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, told Illinois Public Media’s WILL radio. “So that’s something that can be almost immediately created.” So why wait? One concern is cost when the department is already understaffed. But hiring one person will certainly be less costly than many of the reform ideas that are on the table now. “The ombudsman will be a very important piece [of the overall reforms] at a relatively modest investment,” Beth Compton, general counsel for the department, recently told a House committee.

The Senate should pass SB 2352 when it is next in session, and Gov. Pat Quinn should sign it into law. Creating the office by legislation will guarantee a certain level of autonomy. It would also require any future changes to the rights and responsibilities of the ombudsman to go through the legislative process. This would make it more likely that any watering-down of the position would be publicly debated. 

When outside monitors have come into juvenile justice facilities for one-time reports, they have found some serious issues. Allowing an ombudsmen unfettered access sends a message that the department is truly working toward change and is not afraid of oversight. Such an advocate could help youth feel that they have someone looking out for them and give them a safe anonymous way to report problems. That does not seem to be the case currently, according to a report on safety issues from Barry Krisberg, director of research at the University of California Berkley Law School’s Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy. Krisberg was one of the three experts who conducted evaluations of the system for the consent decree. “Youth do not have confidence that the existing complaint or grievance system is sufficient to resolve serious problems. The youth often believe that the staff destroy the grievance reports and that the staff always take the side of another staff member and never the youth. At IYC Kewanee, IYC Saint Charles, and IYC Harrisburg, the youth even reported that staff members would pay residents to attack other youth who the staff did not like. Other youth reported that staff would organize fights among residents for their own entertainment. These adverse reports came from youth in virtually all living units, from youth with very positive behavior records, and those going home very soon.”

Juvenile offenders have also reported to the John Howard Association, which makes monitoring visits to juvenile detention centers as well as prisons, that their complaints are not being heard. “Youth report that grievance procedures are unpredictable and unreliable; that they fear retaliation for complaining of staff conduct; that decisions are biased and invariably slated in favor of staff; and that even ‘positive’ grievance outcomes are unsatisfying because they frequently amount to nothing more than a general assurance that the problem will not reoccur in the future. Believing the grievance procedure to be fruitless and ineffectual, it is unsurprising that youth feel discouraged from bringing and pursuing grievances through to completion.”

The department started out with clear and laudable goals but has stumbled from the time of its inception. And no wonder. It was expected to build a new system with little money or staff and was reliant on the agency it just broke away from for much of its resources. “Powerful and significant forces have been impacting juvenile justice in Illinois. In 2006, the state legislature created the current IDJJ and separated most of its operations from the Illinois Department of Corrections. In effect IDJJ needed to create policies and procedures from scratch, while still operating the existing facilities and absorbing most of the existing IDOC staff. The newly created IDJJ needed to absorb and bring about a cultural shift among staff and mid-level managers whose professional perspective was that of running prisons for younger inmates. The continuing legacy of that prison culture is a major challenge faced by IDJJ,” Krisberg wrote. 

Department of Juvenile Justice Director Arthur Bishop, who has a background in social work, has likened the efforts to change the culture at the department to turning around a battleship in a bathtub. Despite the challenges, there has been progress. Redeploy Illinois, which aims to keep youth out of detention centers, is a clear success. The relatively quick response to the Justice Department survey was also a good thing. In general, department officials have been willing to admit there are problems, and advocates are taking note of improvements. 

“Based on recent progress and developments ... [the John Howard Association] finds that IDJJ has taken important steps to move beyond its transition from IDOC. In the past year, for instance, IDJJ has gained increasing control of its own operations as it has begun to take over critical executive staff positions and the responsibilities for training staff and supervising youth after they are released,” said the John Howard Association report. “Moving beyond transition is important because it means that IDJJ is at last in a position to fully direct its own course, exercise control of its mission and, thus, to be held fully accountable for its continued progress.” In the report, the association makes 10 recommendations on how the department can complete that transition. Number five is establishing an ombudsman. 

Appointing an ombudsman will not fix the overall culture, but it will let staff and youth know that someone is watching and — on a positive note — that somebody outside of the system consistently cares about what is going on in the department. 

Illinois Issues, December 2013