Closing Kewanee Just a Start for Juvenile Justice Reforms

State Journal-Register
March 4, 2016
Stephanie Kollmann: Closing Kewanee just a start for juvenile justice reforms

Stephanie Kollmann
Stephanie Kollmann
In an unusual move three years ago, a prison watchdog group called on juvenile court judges to stop sending youth with mental health needs to the state youth prison system. Judges, who may have thought they were helping youth to receive intense mental health care, were told the state didn’t have enough qualified specialists at the Kewanee prison where the state kept youth with the most severe needs.

Recently, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice IDJJ conceded Kewanee needs to be closed. The state’s six youth prisons have so many empty cells that economics demand downsizing by at least one facility.

The 95 youth at Kewanee are to be moved to other juvenile prisons in locations where it is easier for IDJJ to meet minimum mental health staffing requirements.

Everything about this decision is sound — inevitable, actually — but it should be followed by further decreases in the size of the juvenile prison system and more rehabilitation and prevention services delivered to youth in their home communities as well as in prison.

By law, youth are only supposed to be committed to our state juvenile prisons as a last resort. Courts are to make every effort to hold youth accountable locally while delivering needed services. Yet, too many teens are still being committed to adult-style state prisons far from their homes, schools and families. The state has greatly reduced the number of incarcerated youth, but it could reduce it further by properly funding prevention services for at-risk youth and expanding successful programs like Redeploy Illinois, which pushes state resources through to local services and supervision.

We also need stronger legal protections against incarcerating low- and medium-risk teens. For these youth, the unavoidably dangerous and traumatic experience of incarceration, including constant contact with higher-risk peers, aggravates the problems they bring with them to prison. Success in prison is elusive and does not easily translate into self-sufficiency on the outside. It is small wonder that most incarcerated youth recidivate at higher rates than peers held accountable in a community setting.

Every young person in prison is capable of rehabilitation. When the state severs parental custody and incarcerates a teenager, it undertakes the grave responsibility to support that rehabilitation. Too often, state incarceration of youth becomes an evasion of that responsibility rather than a serious commitment to it. But state law does not permit the juvenile system to give up on any delinquent youth, and for good reason.

Research is clear that most young people, even those who commit very serious offenses, quickly age out of their behavior. The key, as with any other teenagers, is to ensure that the consequences of their actions are proportionate, safe and productive, never destructive or debilitating.

None of this is cost-free, but spending money now to deliver necessary services to young people is cheaper, safer and sounder than our failed legacy of the “state warehouse” approach to youth justice.

Governor Bruce Rauner and the General Assembly should continue this forward momentum by not only removing all youth from the Kewanee prison, but by passing a budget that will fund critical community preventive and rehabilitative services, thereby reducing unnecessary youth incarceration.

Adolescence can be a trying time for teens and adults under the best of circumstances. Delinquent youth, many of whom are among our state’s most vulnerable citizens, need a system specifically designed to help them to grow up safely and successfully.

— Stephanie Kollmann is policy director at the Children and Family Law Center, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, in Chicago.