More than half of young offenders in Illinois’ youth prisons are back within three years of their release, according to a new report.
The system intended to help imprisoned juveniles get back into their communities for more rehabilitation is broken, but not beyond repair, according to the study by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission.
During a six-month period, 54 percent of the 386 youths whose parole was revoked were sent back to prison for technicalities such as truancy and curfew violations.
Other findings include the fact that youths are systematically deprived of their constitutional rights in decisions regarding parole revocations.
The report recommends that judges preside over parole revocation hearings, rather than prisoner review boards.
Young offenders also typically stay on parole until their 21st birthdays, increasing the likelihood of returning to custody. The report recommends that the length of parole should be limited. Plus, parole officers handle both adults and youth with caseloads averaging 100, but have no special training for dealing with young people. Rarely do they refer young parolees to programs that could help them with jobs, substance abuse or mental health issues.
“You have officers who are overworked and who don’t have adequate training,” said commission chairman George Timberlake, retired chief justice of the 2nd Circuit Court. “It’s easy to say, ‘It’s a violation. I’m writing it up,’ and the kid goes back inside the prison.”
Statewide, there are more than 1,000 young people in custody in eight prisons with an additional 1,600 on parole.
Locally, between seven to 12 kids are sent to juvenile prisons from McHenry County each year, said James J. Edwards, who heads the juvenile division of Court Services. The average number of juveniles in detention centers also is low, hovering around five or six youths a day.
“When you look at a county our size, historically we have a low percentage of kids who ever end up in the Department of Juvenile Justice,” said Phil Dailing, director of Court Services. “We don’t contribute a lot to this problem.”
The burden is on county officials, when appropriate, to find alternatives rather than send young people to prison, Dailing said.
A plan is put together that involves a lot of organizations, including schools and possibly a community service organization. The Day Reporting Center, which is a court-ordered program designed to intervene in delinquent behavior for people ages 12 to 17, is an option.
“It really is a team effort with everybody doing their part not only to supervise, monitor and control this youth while they’re in the program, but to provide and address the services that are going to meet their needs so they can stay in the community and exit the system successfully,” Dailing said.
Dailing cited community agencies such as the Youth Service Bureau that partner with the county for programs like the Day Reporting Center as a strength. But other factors, such as McHenry County’s lack of its own detention center for juveniles, are a challenge.
Detention centers, unlike prisons, house juveniles temporarily, often before court hearings or placement in a long-term facility.
“We contract out with Kane County, and so far that’s served our needs fairly well,” Dailing said. “But it is an hour away, and it limits the amount of contact the system can have with those juveniles and their families.”
McHenry County also does not have any residential treatment centers for children.
“For any juvenile who can’t be maintained within the community but perhaps can be still kept from a full commitment, if we’re looking at residential treatment facilities, we always have to look outside the county,” Dailing said. “That puts barriers up in terms of transportation and parents’ ability to stay connected with their kids.”
Prison is a last resort.
Judge Maureen McIntyre handles all juvenile cases, Court Administrator Dan Wallis said, and she does not take sending a child to prison lightly. She visited several youth prisons, meeting staff and seeing the environment for herself.
“She feels badly when she has to send somebody there,” Wallis said. “There are certain factors that she has to take into account statutorily as to whether or not to send somebody, and she knows that it may not be the best environment for the child.”
There are clear systematic problems within the Illinois’ youth prison system, Wallis said, that require an overhaul before they can be fixed.
“It certainly didn’t get this way overnight, and it’s going to take an awfully long time to fix it,” he said.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.