Illinois Probe Finds Rushed, Unmeasured Process for Juvenile Release, Reentry and Parole

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Illinois has seen significant changes to the front-end of its juvenile justice system, but its system of releasing and assisting incarcerated juveniles is a procedural mess, according to a report today from the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission.

IJJC is part of the Department of Human Services and critiques in this report the independent Department of Juvenile Justice, which shares some services with the Department of Corrections.

“An essential measurement of any juvenile reentry system is whether youth returning from incarceration remain safely and successfully within their communities,” said the report. “Well over 50” percent of its incarcerated juveniles returning to juvenile lockup, said the report, which the commission was mandated to do by a law passed in 2009.

The number of offenders returning to juvenile facilities is “unacceptably high,” said Judge George Timberlake, who chairs IJJC, speaking on a press conference call today.

The report criticizes the state’s practices in four specific areas:

Release: The only way an offender can be released from an Illinois juvenile facility is if the Prisoner Review Board (PRB) approves release or the offender has served as much time as an adult would for a crime. The commission observed 230 Prisoner Review Board (PRB) hearings, and Timberlake said what they found were proceedings that were “rushed” and bewildering to offenders.

“We need a clearly stated release decision-making process,” said Timberlake. The commission recommended putting a legal advocate in each facility, and mandating that review hearings occur every six months of a juvenile’s incarceration.

Reentry: DJJ gained its independence in 2005 from the Department of Corrections, but commissioner Julie Biehl said the adult way of handling parole is still used by DJJ.

“The current parole system is to ‘keep eye on the offender, make sure he’s not a danger,’” Biehl said. “That’s not consistent with good juvenile reentry practices.”

DJJ Director Arthur Bishop said the department has already started a pilot program that connects some returning offenders to after-care specialists, who start working with offenders when they come into the facilities.

Parole Revocation: The commission reviewed the files of 400 youth who had their parole revoked. Of those youth, the report found that 54 percent were re-incarcerated based on a technical violation of their parole, most often for violating curfew, truancy or for home disturbances.

“We are not suggesting future crimes should not lead to re-incarceration,” Timberlake said, “but it was surprising to find that what could be considered normal teen behavior leads to a return to prison.”

The revocation hearings that put juveniles back behind bars were overseen by the PRB instead of judges, and the report was critical of how those hearings generally transpired. Youth are almost never informed of their right to counsel, the report said, and Timberlake said most juveniles faced the hearings without so much as a family member present.

A “court must make parole revocation determinations” in the future, the report recommended. Timberlake said the increased workload for judges in most counties would amount to a few revocation hearings per year. The Cook County (Chicago) docket would see an addition of one or two revocation hearings per day, a rise that Timberlake said he is confident the bench there could handle.

Case Management: DJJ continues to share an archaic case management system with the Department of Corrections, which includes paper-only master files on juveniles that are generated from what Timberlake derisively referred to as a “coal-fired computer” with a “mainframe that is not susceptible to much upgrade.”

The report recommends development of an integrated case management system that allows multiple juvenile justice professionals to track and manage cases across the continuum of community-based and secure facility services.

“There are good systems available” used by other systems, said Timberlake, who declined to identify which ones impressed him. Hours from the state capital, in Indianapolis, a case management system called Quest has garnered the attention of juvenile justice systems in other states.

Biehl conceded that certain recommendations by the commission would cost the state money up front, especially building a case management system and expanding the scope of juvenile after-care services. The commission intends to conduct a cost-benefit analysis it believes will show significant long-term savings from its recommendations.

She indicated the main driver savings would be a lower reliance on incarceration by DJJ, which currently spends about $87,000 per year on each youth it incarcerates. Those savings could only be realized if the state lowered incarceration enough to shutter entire facilities and either lay off or re-task staff there.

In New York, which has closed 18 facilities in recent years, workers unions and local politicians have pushed hard to block such closures.

llinois is a key state in both of the nation’s philanthropy-led reform movements: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI).

MacArthur grantees in the state have helped to promote and provide services for Redeploy Illinois, a program in which the state’s Bureau of Youth Services and Delinquency Prevention provides fiscal incentives for counties to rely more on community alternatives to incarceration. Models for Change grantees also played a major the juvenile system.

Cook County (Chicago) is one of Casey’s model sites for JDAI, an project aimed at helping counties and states reduce their reliance on pretrial detention. Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center once held more than 600 juveniles, and the facility’s population had dropped to 265 by this fall.

Philanthropic support would increase the odds of the IJJC recommendations seeing action in a tough economic period. Casey, which has assisted in detention reform since 1992, has taken a recent interest in juvenile de-incarceration. It announced in October an initiative to reduce the number of incarcerated juveniles by 50 percent in 10 years.

Click here to read the commission's report.