As Illinois' only non-partisan juvenile and adult prison watchdog, the John Howard Association (JHA) congratulates Candice Jones on her appointment to become the new Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ).
Director Jones is remarkably qualified to oversee the Illinois' juvenile prison system, which is responsible for more than 800 incarcerated youth and another 1,300 on parole. Having worked on public safety issues in Illinois and nationally as a White House Fellow and a program officer for the MacArthur Foundation, Director Jones brings an exceptional set of skills, networks and knowledge to her new position.
Created by statute in 2006, IDJJ was separated from the Illinois Department of Corrections and given a distinct mission: to "provide individualized services" to young offenders to help them return successfully to their communities, recognizing that they "have different needs than adults."
While Illinois has made important progress in building a better juvenile justice system, IDJJ's mission still remains more of an aspiration than a reality.
From JHA's perspective, which is grounded in our regular monitoring of IDJJ's facilities and operations, we believe that Director Jones' overall task is clear: She must find ways to operationalize IDJJ's mission -- to ensure that the principles of rehabilitation and treating justice-involved kids differently than adults are fully embodied in the agency's policies and practices.
Under this general recommendation, JHA sees four interconnected opportunities for reform that can help IDJJ create better results for young offenders and for the communities they return to.
1. Continue to reduce Illinois' use of juvenile incarceration through front and back-end reforms.
While Illinois has significantly reduced its use of juvenile incarceration, too many kids are still being incarcerated in IDJJ and too many paroled youth either return to IDJJ or end up in the adult prison system.
JHA recognizes that IDJJ has limited control over the youth committed to its custody. At the same time, we believe that IDJJ can play a stronger role in educating the justice system's front-end decision-makers -- including county judges, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and probation departments -- about what these facilities can and can't do to address youths' needs and reduce recidivism.
The reality is not simply that IDJJ lacks the resources to be everything to everyone. Even with adequate resources, the fact remains that imprisoning kids in large penal institutions for long periods of time, far from their families, is not an efficient or cost-effective way to reduce recidivism or to rehabilitate young offenders. For many kids, particularly ones who are low risk, incarceration actually makes them more likely to re-offend.
Moreover, incarceration is the most expensive form of punishment we have. Illinois taxpayers spend almost $130 million a year on IDJJ, which amounts to upwards of $177,000 per year to incarcerate a single youth at the agency's most expensive facility. Compare this to Redeploy Illinois, a state-funded diversion program that enables counties to hold young offenders accountable in their communities. Research has shown that Redeploy is about four-times more effective at reducing recidivism than sending kids to IDJJ facilities and only costs between $2,000 to $10,000 per intervention.
JHA believes that if IDJJ educated system stakeholders about the real limitations of addressing youths' needs in institutional settings and of the effectiveness of alternatives like Redeploy, more front-end decision-makers would make wiser use of incarceration, sentencing kids to short periods of incarceration only after they have fully exhausted every other possible way of holding them accountable in their communities -- which is ultimately where they will always return to.
This points to the second aspect of reducing Illinois' use of juvenile incarceration: IDJJ needs to effectively implement its new Aftercare Program.
The real work of rehabilitation always begins after youth leave prison and have to deal with the challenges that led them to the deep-end of the justice system. The idea behind IDJJ's Aftercare Program is to provide paroled youth with community-based interventions and support during this critical period. To do this, Aftercare Specialists need to address family and neighborhood challenges, use meaningful consequences and guidance in managing disciplinary infractions, as well as help provide educational and employment opportunities for returning youth.
This is the right approach, but it will only be effective if IDJJ is able to manage a difficult parole population with diverse needs, and if the larger framework for youth reentry, which includes release, supervision, revocations and parole termination decision making, is aligned with the goals of Aftercare.
2. Educate and empower IDJJ's staff to implement the agency's rehabilitative mission.
Policy is only as good as its implementation, and implementation in a correctional setting is always the responsibility of frontline staff. While IDJJ's administration has provided staff with training and other support, more important work is still needed to help its staff champion the agency's mission. From JHA's perspective, we believe that there are dedicated staff at every facility waiting for this opportunity.
3. Make IDJJ's facility safe places for youth and staff.
In June 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, United States Department of Justice (BJS), found that Illinois ranked among the four worst states in the country for rates of reported sexual victimization in juvenile detention facilities.
IDJJ has taken some important steps to respond to BJS's findings, including establishing a hotline for youth to report allegations of sexual victimization and partnering with Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault to provide training for staff. Along with these actions, JHA recommends that IDJJ further increase opportunities for meaningful family visitation and communication, reform its grievance system, educate youth in a language and manner they will understand, and create stronger institutional oversight, such as a pending Illinois Senate proposal would do by establishing an ombudsperson to oversee all IDJJ facilities and policies.
These individual policy changes will help move Illinois in the right direction. However, they do not go far enough to address the systemic factors that are associated with high levels of sexual victimization, including the size of the prison, length of stay, age of the population, and proximity to youth's community. Overall, the BJS Report found that larger facilities that housed older youth serving long sentences far from their homes had the highest rates of sexual victimization. To make state juvenile prisons safe for youth and staff, Illinois needs to move away from and ultimately abandon this model of incarceration.
4. Increase transparency and accountability.
In corrections, perfection is an impossible standard, but failure is not always the opposite of success. No correctional program, no matter how effective it is, can totally prevent unpredictable behavior, and if kids leave IDJJ and do not have problems reentering society, then they should not have been committed to the agency in the first place.
Understanding these limitations, the public cannot begin to assess IDJJ's effectiveness without more information about its operations. JHA recommends that IDJJ track and release regular public reports including data already collected by the agency to evaluate facility operations, school performance, mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, use of confinement or other disciplinary measures, rates of release, release placements, and rates of return to IDJJ.
For more than 100 years, the John Howard Association has served as Illinois' prison watchdog, monitoring the facilities and policies that impact our incarcerated populations, which in turn impact us all as taxpayers and citizens. We look forward to working with Director Jones as she begins her tenure.