It takes a village: Leveraging community-level knowledge to decrease juvenile arrests

While analyzing data in 2017, Morgan County’s Juvenile Justice Council noticed that youth who had received truancy tickets, were on probation, or were assigned to community service had an increased risk of further system involvement. In addition, this problem was disproportionately impacting youth of color.

Active since 2017, Morgan County’s Juvenile Justice Council is housed within Midwest Youth Services, which also serves as the local Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Services provider (CCBYS). Like other councils around the state, The Commission funds Morgan County to convene local stakeholders and use data to inform collaborative strategies for reducing racial disparities and the number of youths entering their local juvenile justice system. Juvenile justice councils are integral to fulfilling the Commission’s mission because local stakeholders possess unique community-level knowledge and expertise that best equips them to uncover and address problems within their county.

“We noticed that youth and families were being penalized without recognition of the root causes for their [transgressions],” said Ann Hungerford, the Executive Director for Midwest Youth Services (MYS), the coordinating organization for Morgan County’s Juvenile Justice Council. “Furthermore, there were no services in place through the court system to address underlying issues of misbehavior among juveniles.”

To tackle this issue, the Council launched Jacksonville Alternatives for Youth: Promoting Restorative Opportunities (JAY-PRO). Acting as an alternative to arrest, this program offers mentorships and community service and local engagement opportunities to youth that have had trouble in schools or with law enforcement. To address the lack of eligible community service options, MYS built relationships with 14 other organizations and business in the area, ensuring opportunities for youth to develop skills and improve self-esteem while also engaging in relationship building and reciprocal community service. In addition, MYS offers transportation, food and case management, as well as other wraparound services to youth as needed.

“We are trying to find the root of the problem to try to limit [youth] involvement in the court system by engaging other community stakeholders,” Hungerford said. “That’s where support from IJJC helps us to organize, improve, and bolster the systems already in place.”

The program is now seeing buy-in from the most critical of community stakeholders. For example, the Jacksonville Police Department is utilizing station adjustments and referring youth to MYS rather than referring them to the juvenile justice system. In an article on the program by The Journal Courier, Jacksonville Police Chief Adam Mefford reported that the rate of arrests for juveniles has gone down 30% since working with MYS.

MYS is hoping to expand their referral sources for this program, specifically with the goal of encouraging schools to refer youth to JAY-PRO rather than calling the police. The partnerships that have developed out of the council have resulted in a stronger system of coordinated care for youth in Morgan County.

“We try to keep the focus on teaching kids referred to the program skills and getting them engaged in the projects, rather than looking at it as a punishment,” said Hungerford.

With the continued support of the Commission, Morgan County is hoping to build on its success and consider more diversion opportunities for youth deeper in the juvenile justice system. As the council continues to strengthen its relationship with local stakeholders, it will be better equipped to identify and fill the gaps in resources, practices, or policies for youth and families.

To read more about our initiatives around Illinois, sign up for the Commission’s quarterly eNewsletter here.