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Kids Behind Bars: Illinois Rethinks Juvenile Justice

Elias Roman, 17, has been through Illinois' juvenile justice system twice. But the second time around, he was paired with a mentor, and he's looking at things differently.
Cheryl Corley
Elias Roman, 17, has been through Illinois' juvenile justice system twice. But the second time around, he was paired with a mentor, and he's looking at things differently.

In an alley in Little Village on Chicago's West Side, the faint sound of music from a Spanish-speaking radio station wafts in the air and garbage cans are sprayed with gang graffiti. They look like the tattoos on 17-year-old Elias Roman's arms.

"This [alleyway] right here is where I caught my first gun case," says Elias, who was born and raised in the neighborhood, home to a large Mexican-American community.

Elias was 15 and a gangbanger when he was busted. He tells NPR's Cheryl Corley that like many kids he ran with at the time, he had a gun. Out late one night, the cops picked him up, and he was charged with gun possession. He spent a month in a detention center, and then was put on house arrest.

Elias cut off the electronic monitor the Department of Juvenile Justice had placed around his ankle to keep up with him. Four months later, he was picked up again, charged with unlawful use of a weapon. This time, he got a longer stint in the state's juvenile centers.

Rethinking The Recidivism Issue

His story of trips through the justice system is familiar in Illinois — one of a number of states rethinking how it pursues juvenile justice to make sure kids who've committed a crime once don't end up in a juvenile facility again.

Nationally, there were more than 70,000 juvenile in residential placement facilities in 2010, according to Census Bureau data. The number was about 2,200 that same year in Illinois.

A damning report [PDF] from the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission called the state youth prison system an expensive failure. Its study showed that "well over 50 percent of youth" leaving the state's facilities will go back to juvenile facilities — and others will head to adult corrections system.

Some of the juveniles in Illinois' system committed serious offenses, the report shows. But many others are there for lesser crimes and, officials say, would be better served in treatment or educational programs.

What Requires Incarceration?

George Timberlake, a retired Illinois judge and the report commission's chairman, says the group observed more than 250 prisoner review board hearings and analyzed the files of about 400 young people whose parole was revoked.

He says many of the juveniles who ended up back in custody didn't commit new crimes, but instead were found guilty of technical violations of a parole order, such as skipping school and staying out late.

"How many teenagers do you know who are where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there?" Timberlake says. "Certainly, they need to be educated that time matters and it affects other people's schedules, but doesn't mean they need to be back in prison because of it."

Arthur Bishop, director of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Department, has been on the job for less than two years. He began his career as a caseworker in the state's child welfare agency. He says his team is in place to change the way kids in the system are treated. It's pretty simple, Bishop says: Treat kids who commit crimes more like kids, and less like adults.

The old model still exists, Bishop says. Parole officers who aren't necessarily trained to work with youth still handle many of the juvenile cases, but a new test model is up and running in the Chicago area.

Bishop says as soon as a young person arrives at a youth center, an aftercare specialist will begin to work with him or her, assessing any needs, like mental health issues. They may also have to develop a plan for their release.

"Not only does that aftercare specialist work with the youth, but they also begin to engage with families. And I'm emphasizing these points because that's not historically done," Bishop says. "Families are often put on what I call the 'pay no mind' list because many of the families ... have the same — I'll use my scientific word — 'messed up' backgrounds."

Shifting The Model

While the push to change the culture of Illinois' juvenile justice system may help reduce the number of kids who end up in facilities, it's also tied to the state's deep budget woes. In 2010, the Illinois auditor general said [PDF] that it costs an average of $86,861 a year to keep a juvenile in Illinois' Youth Centers – far more than for community-based strategies.

That point is underscored in a 2011 report released by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which shows a dramatic difference nationwide between the average annual cost for housing a juvenile compared with community-based programs and public college tuition.

The foundation, which provides financial support to NPR, also says the juvenile incarceration rate is nearly five times higher in the U.S. than in other developed nations. That's despite having "only marginally higher" rates of juvenile violent crimes.

"We really only recently have started to take stock of the developmental differences of young people and adults," says Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. "And in large measure, our juvenile correction system has been modeled after adult corrections."

Nationally, she says, there has been a trend toward treating young people and adults differently when it comes to crime. Juvenile justice services are migrating to into other state sectors, merging with mental health and education services, for example, rather than being overseen by adult corrections.

The next step in Illinois is already under way. The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission just awarded more than $1 million to two groups that will work with juvenile offenders being released but returning to areas that have the highest rates of youth incarceration in the state.

A 'Positive' Perspective

Two years ago, when Elias was caught for the first time, he says he hardly spoke to his parole officer. "I was out here — I had nothing going for myself. That's how I ended up in bars," he says.

His second time through the system was different. The state assigned a mentor to work with Elias and his family, part of Illinois' effort to reduce the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders. Since he's been out again, Elias says, he's had an entirely different mindset:

"I got a kid. I got a job. Trying to go back to school. And I got things in my head now — positive things."

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