Should children who commit low-level offenses be incarcerated, or is there a more productive use of scarce state resources? This is one of the issues posted in House Bill 83, now pending in the Illinois General Assembly.
This bill would encourage juvenile courts across the state to explore less restrictive alternatives to confinement for children convicted of low-level offenses. Its passage would bring Illinois into 21st-century thinking with regard to juvenile justice.
It is well established that juvenile offenders convicted of a low-level offense are less likely to re-offend if given individualized treatment within the community. Troubled youth need mentors, guides and education. Behavior modification is a great tool that helps build their self-esteem and helps them make better choices.
The sad fact is that Illinois currently spends more than $150 million on eight juvenile prisons–over $80,000 per incarcerated youth annually–with a failure rate of half of the youth returning to juvenile prison within three years. Further, statistics show that Illinois is increasing rather than decreasing penalties for juveniles who have committed a misdemeanor.
We simply must reverse this trend. Expensive institutions are being used where there is little need for such investment and where it arguably is counterproductive.
The Illinois House has already passed this bill, and it currently awaits a vote from the State Senate. The bill has support from the Illinois State Bar Association as well as organizations including the PTA of Illinois, Child Care Association of Illinois and Metropolis Strategies (formerly Chicago Metropolis 2020).
We urge you to contact your state senator and let him or her know you support this legislation. Many states have already restricted the use of juvenile prisons, notably Ohio, Iowa, Texas and California. Now, Illinois can join the ranks of those who have taken this important step.
Mark D. Hassakis
Mt. Vernon, Ill.
President, Illinois State Bar Association
From the May 18-24, 2011 issue