Kids in prison: Illinois’ expensive, dangerous and failed policy

America has one of the highest rates of incarceration for juveniles in the world – as of 2008, the US rate was five times that of South Africa, which ranks second. This is an expensive policy: Illinois’ annual cost of juvenile incarceration jumped from $71,000 per child to $92,000 per child over the last few years. At Murphysboro, the cost soars to $147,000 per child because the  facility currently runs at less than 50% occupancy.

Those imprisoned are frequently jailed inappropriately:  Up to 70% of children imprisoned in Illinois have a mental illness diagnosis. This fact is particularly disturbing given the possibility of suicides among juvenile offenders, when combined with jailer-to- inmate ratios as high as 60 to 1, instead of the recommended 10 to 1.

The high cost of incarcerating young offenders is aggravated by the “get tough” policy of throwing any and all offenders into prison for as long as possible. This has led to the construction of more facilities, which in turn has led to officials leaning on incarceration as a primary policy strategy, because “that is what we’ve got.”

This policy works poorly for the offenders and for the general public, because imprisoning a juvenile is associated with higher chances of reoffending. It is important to remember that children who are incarcerated for offense that are sometimes not offenses for adults (known as a status offense), will be returning to their communities sooner or later, usually sooner.

Illinois separated the adult and juvenile portions of the justice system in an attempt to deal with the high recidivism rate among juvenile offenders, along with the high costs of incarceration. This separation has not included the probation officers, meaning that officers who mainly deal with adult offenders also work with young offenders with an entirely separate set of needs. Many youths in the system do not have basic life skills that are taken for granted in adult populations and non-offending youth populations.

The juvenile detention system of Illinois is accused of being particularly filthy and dangerous for the youth detained in it. Cook County’s juvenile detention facility has had lawsuits, due to violent behavior of staff towards inmates, as well as violence between inmates. Children do not have access to clean clothing and are frequently exposed to rodents and insects. The American Civil Liberties Union attributes conditions to the use of the facility as a form of patronage, with little interest in correcting management issues. The ACLU is pursuing lawsuits aimed at conditions in the juvenile justice system in an attempt to force corrections to the issues.

There are good models for reducing recidivism , costs and actually offering assistance to youth in trouble. Simply assessing children who are being placed on probation for mental illness has been shown to reduce recidivism. This saves society money, reduces crime and benefits the children and families who receive the resources needed to relieve the worst effects of mental illness. Redeploy Illinois also attempts to interrupt the patterns of incarceration for at-risk youth by connecting children in the system with the resources they need to succeed and avoid incarceration.

Avoiding the incarceration of juveniles has the potential to save states billions of dollars, at a time when budgets are straining to provide essential services to citizens. The attitude of “lock them up and throw away the key” has led to unsafe facilities that do not prepare youth for their eventual release, meaning higher crime rates for the community. Unsafe and filthy facilities have resulted in lawsuits that will cost the citizens of Illinois, and other states, millions more in costs. There are better alternatives available, but there seems to be little political will to do what is necessary to fix a broken system.