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Grant youth prisons a divorce

Thursday, September 22, 2005
Chicago Tribune

Illinois' maximum security prison in Joliet for youths is a haunting place. Adolescents sit idle in dimly lit day rooms filled with jabbering TVs; a cage in the corner serves as a kind of threat to the unruly; there are echoes of thick iron doors slamming.

Mouth off to a guard, and you can get up to 30 days of isolation in a tiny cell. Education, recreation and psychological treatment have so dwindled in Illinois youth prisons they're now practically considered to be luxuries. Juveniles' guards receive no special training, so too many regard their charges as mere security risks.

There are a hundred reasons why radical change is needed within the state's juvenile prison system. Legislators this fall are expected to vote on a measure that would separate the juvenile prison system from the adult system, a necessary first step toward that reform.

Rehabilitation is a quaint notion abandoned long ago in Illinois youth corrections. Top prison officials admitted as much Tuesday during a House committee hearing about the separation measure. "Reality is, as states have found, when juvenile corrections is housed with adult corrections, it has resulted in a trend toward what's called `the adultification of juvenile justice,'" said Kurt Friedenauer, who oversees the juvenile division.

State Corrections Chief Roger E. Walker Jr. on Tuesday supported the idea of separating the juvenile department. "If we are going to change the juvenile system, this might be a good way to do that," he said.

Inmate figures help explain how the juvenile division gradually became an institutional afterthought. In 1988, the total corrections budget in Illinois was $410 million, and the number of adult inmates hovered at 21,000, while juveniles numbered about 1,200.

Today, the corrections budget is $1.2 billion. The adult population has exploded to 44,000 inmates, while the juvenile population is only slightly higher at 1,400, after a brief spike in the mid-1990s. The rising cost of adult incarceration has put a strain on the budget and has pushed the state's emphasis away from rehabilitating youthful offenders.

Cathryn Crawford, an attorney who represents minors in Illinois prisons, said one teen incarcerated at Joliet called her to ask if she could help get him a transfer to an adult prison because he heard he could take college courses there. "He told me, `I took my G.E.D., and there's nothing more for me to do here.'"

"These are exactly the kinds of conditions that prompted lawsuits elsewhere," said Betsy Clarke, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative. In recent years, federal lawsuits have forced a handful of states to separate their juvenile prisons from their adult systems. Today, 40 states have separate systems.

This is not a popular idea with leaders of unions that represent Corrections Department employees. They argue it will create more bureaucracy and that they can start doing better by kids if they just have more money. Unfortunately, it's going to take a lot more than money to change what has become a counterproductive, punitive culture in juvenile corrections. It's going to take a new start, a new mindset, and a separate department.

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