Guest Column: Juvenile justice system needs oversight

By Elizabeth Clarke
President, Juvenile Justice Initiative

Too often, it takes a crisis — and victims — to bring about a change.

Back in 2004 when policymakers were discussing the need to separate the state’s juvenile prisons from the adult-oriented Department of Corrections, a proposal was made to create an independent statewide entity to ensure the safety of the children in the prisons. The proposal was left behind in the final compromise creating the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) with a mission recognizing youth are different than adults and stressing rehabilitation.

An independent oversight body might have prevented the incidents revealed in the recent U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) report documenting that some of the nation’s highest rates of sexual assault by other youth and staff against the children in custody have occurred at the state youth prison in Joliet and that four other Illinois youth prisons had above average numbers of sexual misconduct reports.

The Joliet prison was closed earlier this year. However, many of the staff were simply reassigned to other youth prisons. And this finding was not a complete surprise. In 2011, a guard was sentenced to six years in prison for sexually assaulting a 17-year-old in the Joliet facility in 2008.

This is not the only concern with conditions in DJJ facilities. Last year, DJJ leadership — recognizing a series of problems — entered into a consent decree with the ACLU to address complaints about the use of solitary confinement, lack of adequate education and lack of adequate mental health treatment.

These infuriating violations of fundamental human rights of our children are doubly disappointing given the state devotes nearly $100,000 per bed annually to our juvenile prisons.

No child should ever be subject to mistreatment, and this report will hopefully incentivize our policymakers to ensure that incarceration is truly the last resort, used only for the safety of the child and the public. The governor and legislature have both supported community-based alternatives to incarceration through Redeploy Illinois, which has led to a reduction by more than half in the number of youth confined — with better outcomes for public safety. Illinois needs to maximize its use of Redeploy and other community-based alternatives.

Meanwhile, we must ensure the safety of the small number of children who will remain in confinement. By calling for an external investigation in response to the federal report, DJJ appears to be headed in this direction.

It’s time to enact the proposal for an independent oversight body — an ombudsperson or inspector general — with 24/7 access to the facilities and confidential access to the children within. Independent juvenile prison monitoring systems in at least eight states could be models for Illinois. Independent oversight agencies have access to facilities with the ability to investigate complaints, report abuses,and monitor the overall conditions in those facilities.

Closer to home, the Office of the Inspector General in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is another good model for independent oversight of facilities housing children.

In response to similar crises in the past, Illinois created independent oversight for children in the child welfare system and children with disabilities. Now, it’s time for Illinois to give the same protections to children in the juvenile justice system.

Betsy Clarke is the founder and president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative. Prior to developing the Juvenile Justice Initiative, Clarke served as juvenile justice counsel for the Office of the Cook County Public Defender for six years, and served for 15 years in the Office of the State Appellate Defender, including appointments as legislative liaison and juvenile justice coordinator.

From the June 26-July 2, 2013, issue

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