“The Comeback States” report showcases a comeback for kids

Illinois is one of the states leading nation in reducing number of youth in confinement

The number of youth confined in Illinois state and county facilities (public and private) declined by 38 percent from 2001 to 2010, according to a new report, the “Comeback States,” released today by the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) and the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice (TPPF).

The report found that youth confinement in public facilities in Illinois peaked at 3,074, in 2000, up from 1,534 in 1985. By 2010, however, Illinois’ confined youth population was reduced to 1,949  in public facilities, and the state’s youth incarceration rate overall declined to 119 confined youth for every 100,000 young people (age 10-to-16 years old) in the state’s population.

“In Illinois, there is a growing recognition that incarcerating children must be a last resort chosen only after all less restrictive options have been exhausted,” said Elizabeth Clarke, President of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a member of NJJN. “Local leaders know that kids coming out of prison too often return to prison and that rehabilitation services delivered in their home communities are much more effective and cost less than the nearly $90,000 annual cost of sending a child to a state prison.”

For youth being held in detention centers awaiting trial or incarcerated in juvenile facilities, this is a critical change. Youth who are locked up are separated from their families, many witness violence, and struggle when they get out, trying to complete high school, get jobs or go to college. Aside from the human toll, the financial costs of maintaining large secure facilities have also made it critical to rethink juvenile justice in every community.

The report argues that the turnaround can be broadened by changes to state policy like those made in the comeback states that reflected declines in youth crime, new understandings of the teenage brain and adolescent development, availability of less costly, evidence-based alternatives to incarceration, and constrained state budgets. These policy reforms include:

  • Increasing the availability of evidence-based alternatives to confinement;
  • Requiring intake procedures that reduce the use of detention facilities;
  • Closing or downsizing youth confinement facilities;
  • Reducing schools’ overreliance on the justice system to address discipline issues;
  • Disallowing incarceration for minor offenses; and
  • Restructuring juvenile justice responsibilities and finances among states and counties.

NJJN and TPPF identified these six policies as key measures of positive reform – five of which were adopted by Illinois – because they all encourage reduced reliance on detention and incarceration across the U.S.

“The policy reforms adopted by these Comeback States reflect a new approach to addressing youth incarceration in the nation,” said Marc Levin, Director of the Center for Effective Justice at TPPF. “States should continue to look to innovative policy changes that emphasize rehabilitation over youth incarceration in order to create safer communities while also reducing the huge societal and economic costs of youth confinement.”

The Comeback States highlighted in the report were selected because they adopted at least two-thirds of the policy changes the report focused on, exceeded the national-average reduction in youth confinement between 2001 and 2010, and experienced a decline in youth arrests during the same period. States that met this threshold included: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, New York, Mississippi, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.

In addition to the advances made in these states, the United States also saw remarkable improvement in reducing youth confinement overall. According to the report, the number of confined American youth reached a record 108,802 in 2000, driven by an increase in youth arrests, public concern regarding youth crime, and tough state policies favoring incarceration. In the decade that followed, however, youth confinement in U.S. dropped by 39 percent – a dramatic turnaround that virtually erased the spike in youth incarceration that began in the 1985 and peaked in 2000.

“States have made strides in changing their policies so that youth are held accountable in age appropriate ways, but there is more work to be done,” said Sarah Bryer, Director of NJJN. “It is critical that we build upon the success seen over the past twenty years and make every effort possible to adopt meaningful reforms that reduce youth confinement and strengthen our communities.”

Despite the turnaround seen nationwide and in the Comeback States, NJJN and TPPF caution that the high cost of youth incarceration to taxpayers and society, the infrequent use of cost-effective alternatives to youth incarceration, and the high level of youth confined for non-serious offenses, remain a serious cause of concern.

In Illinois, juvenile justice groups aren’t resting on their laurels either.

“Although Illinois is on the right track, we have more work to do to ensure that every child in conflict with the law has access to community based alternatives through programs like Redeploy Illinois, to keep low-level offenders out of prison,” added Clarke. “And we must work to ensure that those few youngsters removed from home are safe and receive the mental health counseling, education and other services that will give them an opportunity to mature into responsible adults.”

Two pieces of recently passed legislation awaiting Governor Quinn’s signature would do much to keep this comeback going and continue the positive trend of de-incarceration in the state by raising the juvenile jurisdiction age for felonies to 17 and allowing Cook County (which sends the largest number of kids to state juvenile prisons) to begin a Redeploy Illinois program in a section of the county, such as a specific police district or group of police districts. Redeploy Illinois provides funding for counseling and other direct services to young offenders, and participating counties agree in exchange to a 25 percent reduction in the number of juveniles committed to state prisons over a three year baseline. The program also ensures transparency and accountability through a statutorily required annual report and oversight board.

The development of this report was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through a grant to Public Interest Projects and other organizations committed to improving outcomes for kids and communities.




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