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Illinois needs new department for juvenile justice

Monday, October 17, 2005
Daily Southtown
Editorial

THE ISSUE: A proposal is being considered to break off the juvenile justice system from the Illinois Department of Corrections. Proponents argue youths can be better rehabilitated in a system separated from one that primarily deals with adults.
WE SAY: A new department should be established for juvenile justice. In other states, such departments have proven to be more effective.

In 1969, Illinois officials decided to save money by merging the state's juvenile justice system into the adult Department of Corrections. The rest of the country, meanwhile, has been moving in the opposite direction, and today, 40 states have separate juvenile justice systems.

Critics of the Illinois system say it doesn't work. In fact, rather than rehabilitating youngsters, the system may be teaching them how to be criminals. Paula Wolff, a senior executive at the civic group Chicago Metropolis 2020, described the state's system as "messed-up public policy." Juvenile offenders who enter the state's correctional system "become more like a criminal and more likely to be in the system as adults," Wolff said.

Recidivism statistics support that view. Juveniles who are ordered into the state's correction system have a re-arrest rate of 47 percent, and may have an even higher recidivism rate as adults. In contrast, juvenile offenders in Missouri, which created a separate juvenile justice department years ago, have a recidivism rate of 8 percent. The difference, according to advocates for a separate juvenile justice system in Illinois, is that Missouri and states with similar systems emphasize rehabilitation, education and treatment programs, both during incarceration and after the youngsters are released. In Illinois, where the adult prison population is expanding far faster than the juvenile population, the juvenile population is getting short shrift, and because of budget pressures on the Department of Corrections, rehabilitation and education are no longer emphasized.

Later this month, a coalition of Illinois groups is hoping to persuade the Illinois House of Representatives to support a measure already approved by the Senate that would bring Illinois in step with most of the country by creating a Department of Juvenile Justice. We hope House Speaker Michael Madigan will allow the bill to be considered during the veto session in late October.

Legislators are being pressured not to advance the proposal by the unions representing Department of Corrections employees. They say a new department would require a costly new bureaucracy. Most likely they also fear the proposal will cost some of their members their jobs if a new juvenile division requires different kinds of training. An emphasis on rehabilitation likely would require different training, but advocates for the change say the legislation would ensure current employees an opportunity to get the training and keep their jobs. And they argue that, in the long run, the current system is far more costly than it needs to be. According to Tim Carpenter, state director of the group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, told the Daily Southtown that incarcerating one juvenile in Illinois costs $65,000 a year, while in Missouri the cost is less than $10,000 a year.

But the real issue is effectiveness, and the Illinois system clearly is not working the way we need it to work. When almost half of the youngsters who go through the system can be expected to go back, the system is failing.

We urge Madigan and his colleagues in the House to call the measure for consideration. It has been kicking around the Legislature for almost two years, and that's too long. It is in everyone's interest to place the emphasis on rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system; the best first step in that direction is to take the kids out of the adult corrections department so the new mission can clearly be targeted.



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