Illinois’ Juvenile Imprisonment Rate Drops, Racial Disparities Continue

The number of children being committed to prisons or other detention facilities has dropped by about 53 percent across the country.

According to a recent look at federal data by the Pew Charitable Trust, Illinois saw the eighth largest drop in that number from 2001 to 2013.

Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative, says that’s a positive step, but the state still has a big problem when it comes to racial disparities.

“It is horrific,” she states. “As we’ve driven down the numbers in the Department of Juvenile Justice, the disparities have gotten worse.”

Federal data also shows black children make up 66 percent of Illinois’ youth prison population, more than any other racial group.

Still, other research suggests that black children aren’t necessarily more likely to commit crimes, but they are more likely to be arrested by police.

Researchers cite community programs and other rehabilitation alternatives as big reasons behind the overall drop in the youth commitment rate.

Robin Olsen, who manages state policy work on juvenile justice for the Pew Charitable Trust, says those programs have proven to have multiple benefits, including lowering recidivism rates.

“States are definitely able to reduce some of their budgets related to juvenile justice and make reinvestments in things that are providing better results for youth and families,” she explains.

Clarke says Illinois has made reforms to reduce the youth prison population, such as the 2011 law that asks judges to consider the least restrictive alternatives, only resorting to prison time as a last resort.

“To imprison children is just an outdated concept,” she maintains. “There’s no research showing that it makes really a dent in crime. What makes a dent in crime are community programs that are individualized and holistic.”

Clarke says the state is on the right course, but it should do more to invest in restorative justice programs to further reduce the youth commitment rate and help level out racial disparities.