Winnebago County’s juvenile justice stakeholders seek learning to reduce racial & ethnic disparities

In 2018, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) reported seeing an increase in the number of youths being committed to the IDJJ from Winnebago County, making it one of the top counties for committing the most youth to IDJJ in Illinois. Additionally, youth of color comprised the majority of these commitments, with Black youth being 15 times more likely than White youth to be committed in 2018.

A key component of the Commission’s mission is to address these racial and ethnic disparities (RED) in Illinois’ juvenile justice system, as well as the deficiencies in the way race and ethnicity data is collected. That’s why in November of 2019, the Commission sponsored a cohort of juvenile justice stakeholders from Winnebago County to complete a certificate program at The Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR) at Georgetown University designed to support local jurisdictions in their efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in their juvenile justice systems.

“After spending 20 years working in the juvenile justice system, this program really opened my eyes and changed my perspective on what we in Winnebago County are doing and what others across the country are doing,” said John Johnson, Youth Service Network.

Sponsored participants included stakeholders from Winnebago County’s judiciary, probation, and detention offices, as well as the Rockford Mayor’s office, the State’s Attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and community-based organizations. While at Georgetown, the stakeholders took time to review and reflect on their current policies and procedures, as well as to consider new interventions that might reduce disparities.

“It was invaluable and one of the most impactful weeks of my career,” said Jennifer Cacciapaglia, from the Rockford Mayor’s Office. “We learned best practices and strategies to help us better engage stakeholders, navigate conversations with system partners, and improve community collaboration. I returned with a deeper understanding and awareness of the over-representation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system.”

The certificate program culminated with each group developing a capstone to ensure reform efforts continue beyond their time at Georgetown University. The Rockford cohort plans to train school officials, community members, and law enforcement to better understand and recognize trauma in youth so they can refer them to clinical partners for assessment and treatment. They believe that addressing youth, family, and community trauma will help build a safer and healthier community and ultimately prevent youth of color from unnecessarily entering the juvenile justice system.

“The experience and the continued project will allow for change. Even if some of the participants do not continue on with this project or move on to other positions, this experience will guide some of their decisions and interactions in the future and that alone may have the greatest impact on our community,” John Johnson, from Youth Service Network said.

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