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Troubled youths need more from state

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

With all of Illinois’ financial problems, it’s understandable that taxpayers might have little enthusiasm for reforms in its prison system. But when you’re talking about juvenile detention centers, most reasonable people would agree the state needs to do better.

Last year, the state was sued over inadequate conditions in its juvenile detention centers. As part of the settlement of that federal class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal court ordered a panel of juvenile justice and adolescent psychiatric experts to compile a report about those conditions.

Now, the panel has issued a report detailing the findings of its eight-month investigation of Illinois’ six juvenile detention centers, and the results indicate many of the conditions that prompted the lawsuit have not improved.

The group found incarcerated teenagers mowing lawns during hours they should have been in school. Other juvenile inmates were being medicated improperly and routinely subjected to more solitary confinement than necessary. Several teens remained in prison facilities after their scheduled release dates because state officials could not find housing for them outside the correctional system.

The John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, issued a second report that determined conditions at a specialized mental health facility for juveniles in Kewanee have been complicated by an influx of maximum-security inmates after the closure of another facility in Joliet. For example, while the state has budgeted for 17 mental health professionals to help treat the mentally ill juveniles, only 10 of those mental health workers were available in July.

Gov. Pat Quinn spoke about the situation last week, saying the state now incarcerates fewer young people. He said Illinois would address the issues raised in the reports, which examined conditions at facilities in Kewanee, St. Charles, Warrenville, Chicago, Harrisburg and the Pere Marquette Youth Correctional Facility in Grafton.

Among them, the six facilities house more than 800 inmates between the ages of 13 and 20, and the court-ordered report warns they are operating “far below minimally accepted standards at comparable facilities across the country.”

An ACLU attorney said the reports confirm that incarcerated youths are not getting adequate education and mental health services.

The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice now has two months to draft a plan proposing solutions to the problems outlined in the reports.

Anyone who takes the attitude that juveniles who have committed crimes don’t deserve better treatment is misguided. The fact is these young people will eventually be released back into society, and if the juvenile justice system has not done enough to protect and rehabilitate them, they are highly likely to reoffend. That means more taxpayer money will be needed to continue to house them. It also means higher costs for law enforcement and the courts, not to mention the human costs to victims of the crimes they commit.

If Illinois cannot do a better job of providing much-needed direction and hope to these troubled youths, it will reap a bitter harvest of higher crime in the long run.

The (Alton) Telegraph

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