Clarke: Independent agency needed to oversee Illinois’ youth prisons
Too often, it takes a crisis, and victims, to bring about change.
In 2004, when policymakers were discussing the need to separate Illinois’ juvenile prisons from the adult-oriented state corrections department, a proposal was made to create an independent statewide group to ensure the safety of children in the prisons.
The proposal was left behind in the final compromise creating the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, whose mission recognizes that youths are different than adults and that emphasizes education and rehabilitation.
An independent oversight body might have prevented the incidents revealed in the recent U.S. Justice Department report, which documented that some of the nation’s highest rates of sexual assault against 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, but many of its staff members were simply reassigned to other youth prisons. And the information in the federal report was not a complete surprise. In 2011, a guard was sentenced to six years in prison for sexually assaulting a 17-year-old inmate in 2008 at the Joliet youth prison.
This is not the only concern with conditions at DJJ facilities. Last year, DJJ leadership, recognizing a series of problems, entered into a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union to address complaints about the use of solitary confinement and lack of adequate education and mental health treatment at Illinois’ youth prisons.
These infuriating violations of fundamental human rights of our children are doubly disappointing given that the state devotes nearly $100,000 annually per bed for our juvenile prisons.
No child should ever be subject to mistreatment while imprisoned. The Justice Department report will hopefully incentivize our policymakers to ensure that incarceration is truly the last resort, used only for the safety of both the child and the public.
The governor and Legislature have supported community-based alternatives to incarceration for our youth through Redeploy Illinois, which has led to a reduction by more than half in the number of juveniles confined, with better outcomes for public safety. Illinois needs to maximize its use of Redeploy Illinois and other community-based alternative programs.
Meanwhile, we must also 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 that proposal for an independent oversight body — such as an ombudsman or inspector general — with 24/7 access to the youth detention facilities and confidential access to the children within.
Independent juvenile prison monitoring systems in at least eight states could be models for Illinois. Such oversight agencies have access to detention centers with the ability to investigate complaints, report abuse and monitor the overall conditions in those facilities.
Closer to home, the inspector general’s office at 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 those with disabilities. Now it’s time for the state to provide the same protections to the youths in its juvenile justice system.
Elizabeth Clarke is president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a non-profit, nonpartisan statewide organization working to transform the juvenile justice system in Illinois.