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Our View: Send fewer kids to jail

Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014 11:31 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, March 21, 2014 12:03 a.m. CDT

If you’ve driven east on Route 38 toward St. Charles, you’ve probably noticed the place: tall fences topped by razor wire, with buildings and parked cars visible in the distance.

It’s the Illinois Youth Center at St. Charles, home at any given time to more than 300 boys between the ages of 13 and 20 who are incarcerated for crimes they’ve committed as children. There are five other facilities like it around Illinois that hold hundreds more young people.

It is time for the state to reconsider this model of juvenile justice. In the past year, reports have shown this approach to juvenile rehabilitation is falling short in important ways for the troubled youth who are sent there.

In June 2013, a report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found Illinois juvenile detention centers had the fourth-highest rate of sexual assault of inmates, most of them the result of inappropriate relationships between male inmates and female staff members. 

A review by an independent panel, released in September, found that inmates were mowing lawns when they should have been in school. They also were improperly medicated, routinely subjected to more solitary confinement than necessary, and sometimes held past their scheduled release dates because officials could not find them outside housing.

That review was ordered as part of a settlement between the state and the American Civil Liberties Union after a 2012 lawsuit.

Reforms proposed by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and the ACLU of Illinois were submitted Friday to a federal judge for review. According to a report from The Associated Press, the plan would require a five-hour school day, with a 10-to-1 maximum student-teacher ratio. It would ban the use of solitary confinement for discipline, and require hiring a psychologist to oversee services at all six detention facilities. Mental health and security staffing also would be increased.

However, these reforms, if implemented to accommodate all of the state’s juvenile inmates, will prove costly. And the problems inherent in the facilities and the system – including high recidivism – will remain.

Illinois needs to reduce the number of imprisoned youth. In 2012, half the juvenile inmates were there on charges of drug and property crime. About as many were there because of parole violations, according to the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

One option is having fewer large detention centers and more small, regional centers, where treatment and education can be more effective.

This has been done with success in Ohio as a result of a lawsuit.

The goal of the juvenile justice system should not be to create children who are more comfortable in a prison setting than in the real world. Unfortunately, those who enter the system once are likely to return – in one state survey of children who were in the juvenile detention system from 2005-07, almost 70 percent of them were arrested again within three years. Of course, some people just refuse to learn and can not be reached. But in the case of the young, we owe it to them to try. Rehabilitation and getting them help with underlying problems that are causing their bad behavior should be the focus. We have to be able to do better for troubled youth in a way that is more economical for taxpayers.

Our state’s juvenile detention centers may not be the best solution for all.

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