Juvenile Justice shows progress

“Juvenile Justice shows progress: Fewer youth in prison, but mental health care still lacking,” Illinois Times

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When the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice was created in 2006, the state’s youth prisons held 1,500 juvenile offenders. Today, there are fewer than 900 kids behind bars in Illinois juvenile justice system.

It’s one sign of progress for the relatively new department, which was previously part of the adult-oriented Illinois Department of Corrections. The youth-oriented IDJJ is working to reduce solitary confinement, increase mental health treatment for troubled youth, and boost family involvement, according to a recent report from the prison watchdog group John Howard Association of Illinois. The report also shows the youth rehabilitation system in Illinois still has room for improvement.

Titled “Moving Beyond Transition,” the report offers recommendations for improvement on 10 topics related to juvenile incarceration. Investigators with JHA found that the juvenile justice department is making strides toward research-driven reforms, despite underfunding, understaffing and lingering attitudes that prison is merely about punishment.

“With deep cultural and institutional ties to IDOC, IDJJ has relied on the state’s adult prison system to perform many of its essential functions, from training staff to executive decision-making,” the report says. “While IDJJ’s staff and administration have worked steadfastly to fulfill the agency’s mission, the fact that it had to depend on IDOC undercut the premise of its founding principles.”

Despite relying heavily on IDOC for administrative functions, the juvenile system is beginning to differentiate itself in operations, the report shows. IDJJ is phasing out the solitary confinement that is common in the adult system. The John Howard Association says solitary confinement should be used only as an emergency measure and not as punishment. The juvenile system is working to involve the family in a youth’s rehabilitation, so that when the youth is released, he or she doesn’t fall back into the same habits. IDJJ is also building more flexibility into the visitation schedule and reducing the number of youth sent back to incarceration for technical parole violations.

Still, the report from JHA says the juvenile system struggles to provide adequate mental health treatment. When JHA visited the youth prison located in Kewanee, only eight of the 17 total mental health staff positions were filled, and troubled youth received an average of 30 minutes of treatment per week. Following JHA’s visit, Kewanee hired three more mental health professionals and transferred 24 youth needing treatment to a new mental health treatment “cottage” located at the youth prison in St. Charles.

JHA also reports a disproportionate number of minority youth receiving no mental health treatment. Data from within IDJJ shows 84.9 percent of all white youth in the system were identified as needing mental health services in 2011, compared with 68.8 percent of Hispanic youth and 66.3 percent of African-American youth. JHA says a new test for evaluating a youth’s treatment needs may lessen the disparity, but data from those tests is not yet available.

The watchdog group called on IDJJ to collect the same data at all facilities, so that researchers and administrators could discover which programs and rehabilitation techniques work best. JHA urged the juvenile system to share data with other child welfare agencies, but with safeguards in place to ensure no personal, private data was shared about individual youth.

During visits to youth prisons around the state, JHA heard complaints from youth saying they have “a complete lack of confidence” that staff will resolve disputes fairly.

“Beginning with facility staff and moving up through the organizational ranks to superintendant and the director, the person acting as arbiter has an interest in the dispute,” the report says regarding the current system. “In effect, under IDJJ’s grievance system, the defendant serves as judge – a structure that fundamentally conflicts with basic notions of procedural fairness and due process.”

JHA’s report calls on the juvenile system to create an objective, independent office – such as an ombudsman – to handle grievances.

The report notes that IDJJ has implemented “opt-out” testing for HIV during medical screening, but it calls on the juvenile system to make HPV vaccinations available to all youth. And while IDJJ doesn’t have a program in place allowing youth to register to vote or cast a ballot, leadership in the juvenile system are willing to set up such a program, JHA says.