Youth advocates push to close Illinois juvenile prisons – CBS Chicago


CHICAGO (CBS) – There is now pressure to close the prisons that house Illinois’ youngest criminals – children. Instead, it’s a proposal to rehabilitate them with a growing chorus of lawyers who say juvenile jail time is not the answer.

Many of them have first hand experience. CBS 2’s Megan Hickey spoke to a man who was locked in St. Charles Jail as a teenager, and he said the millions of dollars needed to run these prisons could be okay. better spent.

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Nestled in the lush green fields of Kane County is a huge 127-year-old facility that can accommodate nearly 350 children. But at present, there are only about 30 minors incarcerated at the Illinois Youth Center St. Charles.

“I was like, I would say probably 15 or 16,” Sherrif Polk said.

He was one of them.

“But the whole idea of ​​pretending you’re still human, you know, staying a person before that position, because you know what I’m saying,” he said. “My experience and the conditions, man, it was really horrible.”

Polk isn’t the only one feeling this. Just two years ago, AnnMarie Brown worked as an outreach worker inside the prison walls. Now she is asking for her to be closed.

“They are behind fences and barbed wire,” she said. “They are not animals. They are humans.

She said she felt some of the children had not been treated humanely.

“You put them in a hostile environment like this and then you realize why they may or may not be acting or wanting to be here or calling for help. “

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Now, Brown and Polk have both joined the Final 5 campaign, which is dedicated to closing the five remaining juvenile prisons in Illinois. This is a goal that Governor JB Pritzker announced a year ago.

“In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that shows very clearly that it hurts them,” said Jenniver Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Prison Watch Association. “And that promotes an increased likelihood of criminal behavior when they’re older, so the studies are pretty clear. The research is pretty clear, listening to children who have been affected by the juvenile justice system. “

Vollen-Katz said research indicates that prison budgets could be better spent on community-based rehabilitation and treatment services. In 2021, $ 26 million has been budgeted to operate St. Charles.

These advocates say the process of closing these prisons needs to happen much faster, as every day more and more children have their first crucial interactions with our criminal justice system.

“They are human. They deserve to be able to laugh, love, suffer, take this trauma and be able to talk about it like everyone else, ”said Brown.

On Friday, Pritzker’s office said that over the past few months, they had gathered recommendations on how to improve the plan to transform the current youth prison system in Illinois. Part of that includes preliminary plans for a smaller youth therapy center in Lincoln, Illinois.

Hundreds of minors have been arrested so far this year – some of them for violent crimes like carjacking. But it has been difficult to obtain data on the problem. Information on juvenile arrests (and charges) is not as readily available as data on adults. In the first four months of this year, the CPD made 474 arrests of minors.

Just 10 years ago, there were eight juvenile prisons holding nearly 1,200 young people across the state. Now, there are five prisons which only incarcerate a hundred children.

The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice issued the following statement:

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Since the announcement of the 21st Century Illinois Transformation Model Last year, IDJJ worked diligently to reduce the harms of incarceration, create better outcomes for young people, and increase community safety. Over the past several months, we have engaged with youth and families involved in justice, community leaders, system partners, staff and advocates to gather recommendations on how we can improve the transformation plan. . Additionally, we have chosen a renowned architect who specializes in trauma-informed youth justice centers to design the new Illinois Youth Center in Lincoln, and we are incorporating youth, staff and the community into the design. design process. As we enter phase II of the transformation plan, the IDJJ remains committed to continuing its plan of transitioning from larger prison-like facilities to smaller, therapeutic and developmental youth centers closer to the communities of young people of origin, and to invest in supports and services.

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