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Illinois Has Promised to “Infuse Love” in Its Juvenile Justice System, but What Will Actually Change?

A state plan that focuses on moving incarcerated children from prison-like settings to “dorm-like” regional residential centers is being described as a sea change.

The Illinois Youth Center, a juvenile correctional facility, in Harrisburg. (Nick Schnelle for ProPublica Illinois)

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Last week, in announcing a plan to overhaul Illinois’ juvenile justice system, state officials repeatedly used a term not often heard in discussions about criminal justice: love.

“At the root, children and families want us to infuse love in our policies and practices,” Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, who leads the state’s Justice, Equity and Opportunity Initiative, said at a press conference last Friday. “Somehow along the way, we have forgotten the power of love as it pertains to government and how we treat our children.”

That, in part, reflects why this plan is being described as a paradigm shift. It focuses on moving young people out of prison-like settings far from their homes and into “dorm-like” regional residential centers closer to family.

Illinois has embarked on juvenile justice reform before. First, more than a century ago, when Cook County established the first juvenile court in the country. And again in 2006, when the state created a stand-alone Department of Juvenile Justice. This 100-plus-year journey has seen significant reforms and staunch opposition, small victories and painful failures.

“Here’s the simple truth: Our current criminal justice system is too punitive, and it’s too ineffective at fulfilling its purpose: keeping Illinois families safe,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at the news conference. He lamented the “antiquated theory of juvenile incarceration” that the facilities were built upon and highlighted the racial disparities in the justice system.

More than 70% of youths incarcerated by the Department of Juvenile Justice are Black, he said, though Black children make up only 15% of the state’s population.

None of this is new. Structural racism is baked into every corner of our criminal justice system, from policing to sentencing. The juvenile justice system is no different. But the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the racial reckoning that has swept across the country of late have highlighted just how problematic those disparities are.

Many people said they saw it in the story of Grace, the Michigan teenager who was sent to a juvenile detention center after she violated probation by failing to do her schoolwork during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Details of the Illinois plan haven’t been finalized, in part because officials said they want to hear directly from those affected, but I’m told the new regional centers won’t have the same stark cinder block rooms, metal doors with slits for food or fences topped with barbed wire. The four-year plan also emphasizes reducing the reliance on the department as a whole and investing in services where the teenagers, who are often victims of crimes themselves, live and will likely return after they are released.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about teenagers who committed murder as juveniles but were charged as adults. One young man I spoke to said he was 12 when he joined a gang in hopes of fitting in. He said he had been teased for his stutter and appearance.

I’ve heard that sentiment — a yearning to belong, to be accepted — several times over the years, often from teenagers who have committed heinous crimes. Each time, I’m struck by how childlike they sound.

As a reporter who has covered juvenile justice for years, the sweeping promises of reform reminded me of previous efforts to fix this system and made me wonder what will actually change.

For starters, it’s helpful to understand a fundamental difference between the two systems, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice. It often boils down to a punitive approach for adults and a rehabilitative one for children and teens. Of course, it’s not that simple, but the ideas of rehabilitation and reduced culpability in children go back to the late 1800s.

Advocates and juvenile justice experts have long criticized Illinois for straying from those roots. That was especially true in the 1990s, when the war on drugs and the notion of youth as “superpredators” — a new breed of violent and remorseless adolescents — drove tough-on-crime laws. In an interview a few years ago, John DiIulio, the architect of the superpredator theory, said he had abandoned it by 1998. But it was too late. By then, the average daily number of juveniles in correctional facilities in Illinois surpassed 2,000.

Fueling the move toward reform was a growing body of research on adolescent brain development, which found that teenagers lack the ability to see the consequences of their actions, are vulnerable to peer pressure and have difficulty with impulse control. On the flip side, children possess a greater potential for rehabilitation.

In landmark juvenile justice decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty and life without parole for juveniles, with rulings that highlighted the vulnerability of juveniles and their capacity for change.

Those first years for Illinois’ Department of Juvenile Justice were rocky. Shedding the adult mentality of corrections wasn’t easy. The department began implementing reforms around 2009. But three years later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois sued the department for locking up juveniles in unsafe conditions, failing to provide adequate mental and education services and overusing solitary confinement. A federal judge approved a consent decree that called for the ACLU to monitor the department, which it continues to do.

The ACLU, advocates and lawmakers continued to fight for reform. They pushed to raise the age of juveniles in court to include 17-year-olds, keep the department from locking up teenagers who committed misdemeanors and change the law to make it more difficult for youths to be automatically transferred to adult court.

And for all the death and destruction that the coronavirus has wreaked, it also has allowed juvenile facilities in Illinois to continue what state officials have described as a successful experiment in incarcerating fewer youth. The number of children in Department of Juvenile Justice facilities now hovers around 100, down from more than 1,000 a decade ago.

This week, a group of young people, some of whom have been incarcerated, their families and advocates from Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center launched the Final 5 Campaign. The effort calls for shutting down the last five state juvenile facilities in Illinois and ensuring that families are provided transportation to visit their children weekly in the replacement facilities, which the group doesn’t want to house more than 10 teenagers at a time.

State officials haven’t responded to the campaign. But during last week’s press conference, Pritzker, Stratton, Department of Juvenile Justice Director Heidi Mueller and others described the state’s plan as a “new vision” that “will completely overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system in the next four years.”

Whenever I hear that kind of categorical language, my reporter radar goes off. Is it really going to be a complete overhaul?

Three years ago, I wrote a story that illustrates the fragility of reform. Young men, disproportionately young Black men from Cook County, were being sentenced to lengthy terms in adult prison after committing offenses in a juvenile facility sometimes described in records as “minor” and that had previously been handled internally. The crackdown was linked, in part, to some employees feeling that restrictions on solitary confinement and other reforms hampered them from being able to safely do their jobs. Following the investigation, six of those young men were released from prison after then-Gov. Bruce Rauner commuted their sentences.

Mueller told me this week that some employees are worried about the impact of these latest changes and whether they’ll still have jobs in a few years. She said the reform plan does not call for layoffs and that some of the juvenile facilities will be repurposed to house adult prisoners. Juvenile employees will have the option to stay on to work with the adult inmates.

When I spoke to Mueller, she was driving to the juvenile facility in Grafton, continuing her tour to speak to the workers about the plan. She pointed to several other states that had closed their youth prisons and opted for community-based programs. A 2018 report on New York’s model, known as the Close to Home Initiative, found that moving teenagers from “large, dangerous, geographically remote institutions” to places near their families was far better since “those connections hold the greatest potential to help youth build new skills and stay out of trouble in the long term.”

I asked her about her use of the word “love” at the press conference.

“If we’re serious about safety and what it really takes to rehabilitate youth, then we have the evidence of what works,” Mueller said. “What works is belonging and connectedness and relationships and opportunity and hope and love. It’s not idealism. That is science.”

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Duaa Eldeib is currently investigating issues related to health inequities and race. Send tips and documents her way.

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