System Failure: Sexual Victimization in Illinois Juvenile Prisons

In a recently released national study, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that 15 percent of youth incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) reported they were victims of sexual assault by staff or other detained youth.
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In a recently released national study, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that Illinois ranked among the four worst states in the country for rates of reported sexual victimization in juvenile detention facilities. The study found that 15 percent of youth incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) reported they were victims of sexual assault by staff or other detained youth.

The federal report points to a system failure within IDJJ that must be addressed at every level, from administration to line staff. By correctly defining sexual abuse as unwanted sexual contact between youth and all sexual contact with staff, BJS's report and the recently implemented federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) are finally exposing the nature and extent of sexual victimization in our juvenile justice system. And while some have tried to diminish the magnitude of the report's findings on the grounds that they are based on unsubstantiated, anonymous allegations of sexual victimization, this argument is misguided. BJS, which conducted and issued the report, took false positives, false negatives, confidence levels, and margins of error into account in its methodology and statistical analysis. Further, BJS designed its youth surveys with a number of internal checks and controls to identify and exclude youths whose interview responses suggested either a lack of sincerity or a lack of understanding of the questions.

These points aside, the purpose of BJS's report was not to identify individual abusers, but rather to assess the climate of the country's juvenile prison systems. What it found is that Illinois' system is in need of immediate reform. As Illinois' only non-partisan prison watchdog, the John Howard Association (JHA) was shocked and disturbed at the findings included in BJS's report. While we have not heard allegations of sexual victimization on our monitoring visits, the report's findings confirm many of our longstanding criticisms of IDJJ, including the need for the agency to provide stronger oversight of its operations and to allow groups like JHA to have more comprehensive and unimpeded access to its facilities.

Along with JHA's previous findings and recommendations, we believe that IDJJ must take additional concrete steps to prevent sexual victimization.

1. IDJJ must educate youth about their rights to humane treatment and personal safety. The same language used in BJS's survey to explain what constitutes sexual victimization should be used in explaining unacceptable behavior to youth who may not have the life experience to recognize it for what it is. Moreover, according to the national numbers, the highest percentage of staff sexual misconduct involved female staff with young male victims. Society has given little attention to male sexual victimization by women, but IDJJ must address all manifestations of sexual victimization in juvenile prisons.

2. Youth must have a safe and reliable way of reporting sexual victimization and getting help. State compliance with PREA is imperative. PREA provides guidance on establishing policies for preventing and addressing sexual victimization in facilities. Among other things, PREA requires states to designate an entity, which is operationally independent from the juvenile justice agency's chain of command, to receive youths' reports of sexual victimization to ensure that juveniles can bring complaints without fear of retaliation.

3. IDJJ needs to improve reliability, oversight, and youth confidence in its grievance process by enlisting an independent third-party ombudsman. An essential element of an effective grievance system is the opportunity to present complaints to an unbiased, impartial arbitrator for resolution. This element is lacking under the existing grievance system, where youth must report complaints to staff. In effect, under the current grievance system, the defendant serves as judge, which creates a structure that fundamentally conflicts with basic notions of procedural fairness and due process. Along with failing to provide adequate oversight, IDJJ's current grievance system cannot serve as a reliable means of learning about operations at the facility level.

4. IDJJ needs not only to assemble a group of experts to review policies and procedures, but also to repair the disconnect between the administration and its facilities' operations. In their statements to the press, IDJJ has said that the agency has a zero tolerance policy toward sexual victimization. While this is commendable, most institutions that have been found to have high rates of abuse, such as churches, schools, or the military, had similar policies in place. The challenge of preventing abuse in an institutional setting is not about formulating policy, but rather fostering a culture that respects and implements policy at all levels. For this reason, it is critical that IDJJ both address BJS's findings as a system problem and that it involve and collaborate with facility staff, who will always be responsible of implementing policy.

5. IDJJ needs to do a much better job involving youths' families in all aspects of their operations. Since BJS's report was published, JHA has heard from parents of formerly incarcerated youth, who told us that they were not surprised by the report's findings because they had heard about these allegations from their children. By not involving families, IDJJ misses a critical means to learn about potential abuse that may be happening at the facility level. JHA also encourages parents and caregivers of incarcerated youth to contact us with any issues or problems.

While BJS's findings are disturbing, they also have created an important opportunity to bring needed change to IDJJ. JHA looks forward to working with all of the stakeholders in Illinois' juvenile justice system to ensure the safety and protection of the state's incarcerated youth.

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