Sex abuse plagues youth corrections in Illinois, report says

ST. LOUIS – A top corrections official pledged swift action following a report that shows Illinois’ imprisoned juveniles report more incidents of sexual abuse behind bars than young inmates in almost every other state.

But a watchdog group suggested Tuesday that the changes don’t go far enough and should warrant an outside review.

The Justice Department’s yearly report listed Illinois among the five worst states in terms of instances of juveniles reporting being sexually abused by other inmates or the lockups’ staffers. More than 15 percent of juvenile inmates in Illinois said they were sexually victimized last year, 35 percent higher than the national average of 9.5 percent, according to the study of 326 juvenile confinement sites between February and September of last year.

Only California, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Carolina had a higher rate than Illinois.

The chief of Illinois’ juvenile corrections, Arthur Bishop, on Monday called the findings “concerning” and vowed a planned top-to-bottom review of Illinois’ six juvenile centers by a team headed by “two prominent experts who have done high-level investigations” would root out and resolve the problem.

“We really want to be guided by these experts,” Bishop, who has headed the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice since 2010, told The Associated Press, declining to publicly identify those reviewers.

“Even whether it was 1 percent [of young inmates reporting sexual abuse], we would be concerned,” he said. “I have zero tolerance for sexual abuse of youth in our care, and this does bring to the forefront the need for us to hone in on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

The director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative watchdog group labeled that effort “a good first step” but argued that routine scrutiny by an inspector general “would be a more permanent solution.”

The new 64-page report, released last week, “clarifies the need for some independent oversight,” Elizabeth Clarke added Tuesday, calling the Justice Department’s findings “alarming to everyone.”

“It’s a shocking abuse of fundamental human rights,” she said. “I believe that these large-scale, correctional style-facilities tend to be isolated. They don’t get many family visits, and kids don’t get attorneys. There aren’t really independent eyes and ears going in and out and checking on things. That’s missing in this system.”

Illinois’ grappling with the issue comes as the rate of reported sexual victimization across the country actually has been declining, from 12.6 percent during the first such study a half decade ago to less than 10 percent last year.

Illinois’ cost-cutting recently eliminated the Joliet youth center, which the report said had among the nation’s highest rates of sexual victimization, affecting one of every five inmates there.

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