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Illinois Needs Smaller Juvenile Prison Systems
By youthtoday.org - Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret.
Published: 10/03/2013

Illinois received more evidence last week that incarcerating young people doesn’t rehabilitate them. Independent experts told a federal court that Illinois’ juvenile prison system 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 youth who return to our communities.

Gov. Pat Quinn has another view.

"We've made very important strides in juvenile justice in Illinois," he told reporters.

Can they be talking about the same prison system? Yes, and both seemingly diametrically opposed viewpoints are correct.

Following Quinn’s appointment of Arthur Bishop as Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) in 2010, there have been significant improvements in some conditions and delivery of rehabilitative services to kids held in state prisons. IDJJ has also established a new aftercare program to transition youth back to their homes after leaving prison. New state programs and policies have reduced the number of youth in state prisons from more than 1,400 to around 900 in the past seven years. That’s good news for public safety and for those youth who can be held accountable for their actions at the local level and don’t have to leave home to receive treatment for mental illnesses and addictions and don’t have their educations interrupted.

But the experts’ reports, which are part of a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Illinois, describe conditions that should keep us all awake at night: 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. Now, Quinn and all Illinois legislators and policymakers need to read these reports and pay close attention to the findings.

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