Juvenile justice officials, advocates and a federal judge expressed worry over legal representation for youths.
By Duaa Eldeib
State officials, advocates and a federal judge on Thursday proposed remedies to better deal with youths accused of assaulting staff members at a southern Illinois juvenile correctional facility, including finding youths outside lawyers instead of local public defenders and conducting additional training for correctional officers.
“The children don’t get any justice in that courtroom. That’s the primary concern,” Ben Wolf, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said following a hearing in U.S. District Court in Chicago. “These cases are not handled the same way when they pop up in other counties. There’s more of a review process. There’s more fairness. These young people just get railroaded for the most part.”
ProPublica Illinois reported last week that guards and other employees from the Illinois Youth Center at Harrisburg have pursued more criminal charges over alleged assaults in the past two years than staff at the state’s four other juvenile facilities combined.
More than 40 criminal cases against offenders at Harrisburg since 2016 have led to felony convictions for nearly a dozen young men, as well as adult prison sentences that range from three to eight years.
The prosecutions disproportionately affect young black men from Cook County, records show.
The ACLU, which monitors Illinois’ Department of Juvenile Justice as part of an ongoing federal consent decree, appeared in court to discuss the department’s plan to address the cases in Harrisburg.
The hearing came as a state lawmaker said that she would hold a hearing next month on the department. State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, called the Dec. 5 hearing, which will include testimony about safety at the juvenile justice department as well as the state Department of Corrections.
During Thursday’s hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly asked Wolf and ACLU attorney Lindsay Miller if they had reached out to attorneys who could represent youths appearing in Saline County Court in Harrisburg.
Kennelly suggested contacting attorneys in St. Louis, Springfield or Kentucky. Law schools in the area — at the University of Illinois or Southern Illinois University — could also be an option, he said. Kennelly said he would even be willing to write to law school deans or professors if it would help.
“It’s something we’ve been concerned about, so we’ve been asking around,” Miller said after the hearing. “We do have our eye on it, and I think he gave some really great suggestions, especially with the law school clinics. It’s something I don’t think we’ve considered before.”
The youths prosecuted in Saline County Court have been represented by local attorneys who hold contracts to serve as public defenders. Saline County, like many smaller counties, does not have a defender system of its own.
Attorney Lowell Tison has handled most of the cases where youths were charged as adults.
Tison could not be reached for comment on Thursday. But he previously told ProPublica Illinois that he handles about 100 cases a week and that the cases arising from alleged incidents at the Harrisburg facility present a unique challenge. Under Illinois law, the assault of a guard is an automatic felony.
“It can be a trivial case, but it’s not about what they did,” he said. “It’s about who they did it to.”
The prosecutions come as the state has adopted a number of juvenile justice reforms, including shifting toward a model that incorporates positive reinforcement and banning solitary confinement as a punitive measure. In the past few years, the department has dramatically reduced the average length of time youths spend in solitary confinement, according to department data.
Juvenile justice officials said in court papers earlier this week they are committed to helping staff find alternatives to prosecution. But that means addressing resistance to reforms among some workers.
Some staff have said the reforms — especially limitations on solitary — have left them without the tools they need to do their jobs safely. That is especially true, some have said, given a rise in assaults on staff across the system.
The department unveiled new policies in the court papers, including one instructing staff to try to de-escalate situations and get involved physically only if there is no other way to prevent an “imminent risk of harm.”
The plan also included additional training, including sessions on juvenile mental health.
“By empowering staffing teams to create proactive strategies to change youth behavior,” officials wrote in the court filing, “the Department hopes to see a reduction in youth misconduct and enhanced investment from staff.”
The plan did not address legal representation, but it did note that the department’s chief legal counsel sent letters to the lawyers in the cases to say the department would make it easier to release youths’ mental health records. Department officials also spoke with Saline County’s state’s attorney about the department’s internal procedures for youth discipline.
“It’s beyond our authority to provide legal representation,” Heidi Mueller, the director of the juvenile justice department, said after the hearing. “Personally, I think everyone is entitled to robust legal defense. Our legal system is based on that.”