Juvenile Justice Reform Efforts Based on Data, Not Politics

As of November 2020, we know that at least 258 children ages 13 and younger have been held in juvenile detention in Illinois. In addition, nearly half of all Illinois youths held in detention in June 2020 were there for non-felony offenses, and 60% of the total were Black, according to monthly juvenile detention reports that began in March 2020.

Thanks to the establishment of these monthly reports, the Commission can see patterns and trends in real-time and show the current extent of problems in Illinois’ juvenile justice system, such as persistent racial and ethnic disparities. With more complete data sets, the Commission and stakeholders across Illinois are not only able to better identify problems but also better understand what groups of people or communities are most affected and map out an appropriate course of action to improve standards and outcomes.

These monthly reports are the product of an initiative started 15 years ago to address the four core requirements of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and the Commission’s goal to deinstitutionalize status offenders.

“We all knew that detaining youth was improper, ineffective, and damaging,” said Commission Chair Rick Velasquez. “Youth are different from adults and we increasingly knew that institutionalization was causing harm and trauma, as well as increasing the likelihood that detained youth would be more likely to further penetrate the criminal justice system. That’s why we decided to first focus on reforming youth detention practices for status offenses.”

To better understand how detention was used, when, and for what types of acts, the Commission began compiling and analyzing a broad spectrum of data.

“These initial reports were typically produced 18 months later, meaning we were looking back at what happened over the past year. While this was helpful for guiding policy and long-term planning, it gave us no immediate sense of what was happening in real-time and the dangers youth might be currently facing,” Velasquez said.

The realization that stakeholders couldn’t make informed rapid change using the past year’s data led the Commission to focus on also compiling and making real-time data available, both at the local level (i.e. courts, councils, etc.) and state and national levels.

“It’s important that stakeholders and policymakers at every level have insight into why we’re detaining young people and for how long,” said Velasquez. “The goal of the juvenile justice system should be to minimize harm and trauma, while also protecting the community and ensuring youth accountability. Holding a kid in detention should be a last resort, so we need to move as close to real-time data as possible to ensure this goal is being met.”

The Commission is grateful for our relationship with the University of Illinois Center for Prevention Research and Development (UICPRD), which produces our monthly juvenile detention reports. Every month, Shawn Freeman (research program coordinator for UICPRD) compiles data derived from the Commission-funded Juvenile Monitoring Information System (JMIS). Thanks to their dedicated efforts and partnership, the Commission is able to reliably provide all local stakeholders, state policymakers, and juvenile justice advocates with the critical information needed to make corrective action and change practices to improve youth outcomes.

See a recent article highlighting how one legislator is engaging with and processing the data featured in the Commission-funded monthly juvenile detention reports.

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