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Illinois Vows To Make Life Better For Kids In Prison: ‘It’s Time For A Change’

"When it comes to changing young lives for the better, love, nurturing and connection work better than fear, loathing and isolation."

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CHICAGO — The state will transform its juvenile justice system so imprisoned children can be closer to home and get the investment they need to build better lives, officials announced Friday.

The state’s newly unveiled four-year plan is focused on replacing a few large detention centers for kids with a larger number of smaller ones that will be spread throughout the state, allowing children to be closer to their families while incarcerated. Illinois allows children as young as 10 to be incarcerated, and many are kept too far from their families for regular visits.

The state will also invest in “wraparound support and intervention services” for young people and increase financial support for victim services in communities hit hard by violence, according to a state press release.

Officials, including Gov. JB Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, praised the plan during a Friday press conference, saying it can better serve young people and communities by preventing children from committing crimes in the future and helping them pursue education and jobs.

“We know that evidence shows that warehousing children in these facilities have serious and lifelong negative consequences,” Stratton said of the current system. “It is time for a change to keep more young people out of the system.”

The state’s old juvenile justice system was built on an “antiquated theory,” Pritzker said. Housing kids together in large facilities far from their homes and communities exacerbates the trauma they experience, interferes with their family relationships and creates a culture of instability and violence, he said.

“Our criminal justice system is too punitive and it’s ineffective at fulfilling its purpose: Keeping Illinois families safe,” Pritzker said.

The current system also disproportionately punishes children of color. Black children make up just 15 percent of Illinois’ youth population, Pritzker said, but more than 70 percent of the kids in the state’s facilities are Black.

Overall, officials are also trying to reduce the number of children kept in juvenile detention, Pritzker said. At the start of his administration, in January 2019, there were 282 kids detained; as of June 30, there are 97 detained.

Opening smaller, regional centers will allow kids to be closer to home and their families, which will have benefits for them and their communities, officials said.

“When it comes to changing young lives for the better, love, nurturing and connection work better than fear, loathing and isolation,” said Heidi Mueller, director of the state’s juvenile justice department.

The state will renovate existing properties — “some of which have been going to waste for years,” Mueller said — to open the smaller facilities. They’ll also have to invest in creating facilities in central Illinois, where there are currently no places for detained children.

The state hopes its investment in services for incarcerated children and those leaving the system can help them better find opportunities in education and the workforce so they don’t commit crimes and return to the justice system.

During Phase 1 of the plan, the state will invest more in services that support children who are incarcerated and help them transition into post-incarceration life. There will also be investments in victim services for communities that have been disproportionately affected by violence and disinvestment.

During Phases 2 and 3, which begin next year, the state will begin transferring the Department of Juvenile Justice’s larger facilities to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Traditionally, success in juvenile justice is measured by the redicivism rate — what percentage of kids return to the system within three years, Mueller said.

“But I think that we miss the boat if we don’t think about other positive outcomes, like education, … like having a job, like stability in housing, being able to take care of yourself and have the skills to live independently,” Meuller said. “Those are also measures of success that we really care about and this model will help us achieve.”

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