Illinois has some of the harshest youth-sentencing laws in the United States, under which a child as young as 13 can be automatically sentenced to life in prison, with no discretion for a judge to consider age or individual circumstances.
Abner J. Mikva, a former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Peter Bensinger, a former administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, urge Illinois lawmakers to pass HB1348/SB1858, which would allow judges to consider a “youth’s unique circumstances, such as age, maturity and role in the crime.” The legislation follows the Supreme Court ruling last year in Miller v. Alabama banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles.
On May 14, 2013, the Illinois Senate voted to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, so that 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies would be tried and sentenced in juvenile court rather than adult court. The bill, which was approved by the Illinois House last April, heads next to Gov. Pat Quinn for signature. Thirty-eight states have already set 18 as the age for prosecution in adult court.
Moreover, Illinois received compelling evidence last week that incarcerating young people doesn’t rehabilitate them. Independent experts told a federal court that Illinois’ juvenile prison system has many inadequacies, including that it operates an education program far below minimally accepted standards, does not meet the basic mental health needs of incarcerated youth and uses solitary confinement too often and for too long, with potentially damaging effects on youngsters who return to their communities.
In the past three years the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) has brought significant improvements in some conditions and delivery of rehabilitative services to kids held in state prisons. IDJJ has established a new aftercare program to transition youth back to their homes after leaving prison. Over the past seven years, new state programs and policies have reduced the number of youth in state prisons from more than 1,400 to around 900, which is good news for those youth who can be held accountable for their actions at the local level, don’t have to leave home to receive treatment for mental illnesses or addictions and don’t need to have their educations interrupted.
But the experts’ reports, which are part of a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Illinois, describe shocking conditions that still exist in the state: little schooling, inadequate mental health care even for youth in severe crisis, squalid conditions in the “confinement” units and youth languishing in prison far beyond their release date due to a lack of community-based placements. To its credit, IDJJ allowed the three experts inside and is attempting to resolve the suit without costly litigation. Gov.Quinn and all Illinois legislators and policymakers need to read these reports and pay careful attention to their findings.
A close examination of what’s going on in Illinois could be instructive to other states with youth prisons, because there is considerable evidence that mass incarceration of youngsters in large prison facilities is a fatally flawed concept.
The ACLU lawsuit could produce great change, especially if the federal court can demolish whatever bureaucratic barriers have prevented IDJJ from delivering a quality education and from diagnosing and treating mental illnesses that brought so many into prison. However, the best way to ‘fix’ the terrible conditions the reports describe is a dramatic reduction in the number of youth incarcerated. We must keep more youth in their homes, receiving the kind of supervision and services proven to reduce reoffending much more effectively and at a fraction of the cost of sending a youth to prison.
The three experts have these recommendations for Illinois, which would benefit other states too.
1) Cook County fills many state prison beds with 18-21-year-old men awaiting trial on a new adult charge. They are held for months at state expense due to a violation of parole connected to an earlier action as a juvenile. But if they’re going to trial on a more serious adult charge in Cook County, they should be held there, where they have better access to attorneys and where local taxpayers can pay the bill. IDJJ should refuse to accept them and should put the dollars saved into better rehabilitative services. Illinois has helped lower youth prison numbers in 28 counties which agreed to send 25 percent fewer young people to state prison in exchange for financial assistance.
2) The Redeploy Illinois prison-diversion program, which began in 2006, has been a huge success. This year, Gov. Quinn signed legislation tailor-made to ease Cook County into the program, but officials have dragged their feet. Cook County and others that commit large numbers of juveniles should be given a choice of participating in Redeploy Illinois or paying the state the nearly $100,000 annual cost of incarcerating each juvenile.
3) Today, 10 percent of the kids in Illinois prisons have been approved for release, but they remain behind bars because they aren’t welcome home: either because the state places restrictions on where they can live or because they need substance abuse or mental health treatment and none is readily available. Illinois needs to step up the search for approved living arrangements and help create them when none are available.
4) About one half of the youngsters entering Illinois prisons last year were re-incarcerated for violating the terms of their parole. Often, these were “technical violations,” like failing to attend school or obey a curfew. Illinois needs to shorten the length of parole, which can last up to five years for some, and require technical parole violations to be addressed with more effective interventions than re-incarceration.
Judge Timberlake concludes:
The ‘important strides’ Illinois has made in juvenile justice reform should be the first steps in a marathon of wide-reaching reforms. We cannot afford to run in place.