Illinois House committee holds emergency hearing on reported youth prison sex abuse

Lawmakers respond to federal report that 15 percent of Illinois youth prisoners reported sexual victimization.

July 11, 2013

By: Patrick Smith

The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice office in Springfield. Department officials have been called to an emergency hearing on reported sexual victimization inside youth prisons.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) has called for an emergency hearing of his Restorative Justice Committee to address high levels of reported sexual abuse inside Illinois youth prisons.

Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Director Arthur Bishop is expected to attend the committee meeting, where he will face questions about a June federal report that named Illinois as one of the worst states when it comes to reported sexual abuse in its youth prisons.

Lawmakers say they want to ask Bishop what went wrong and what he is doing to fix it.

“We as a committee that deals with restorative justice need to ask some pointed questions of the director,” said State Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Addison), the committee’s Republican spokesman.

The federal report found that about 15 percent of juveniles reported being sexually victimized while inside one of Illinois’ youth prisons. Nationally that figure was less than 10 percent.

Most of the reported sexual abuse was allegedly done by prison staff.

Reboletti, who is a former prosecutor, said that raises serious questions.

“I want to find out how staff are trained, how staff are disciplined, if criminal charges are being brought … and what else can we be doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Reboletti also said he wants information on how many youth prisoners alleged sexual abuse in the past six months, and how those claims were investigated.

That research is one of the measures Bishop said he is taking in response to the report. He said the department investigates all allegations of abuse thoroughly.

The department also set up a youth hotline and a youth advisory council in an effort to make sure the youth prisoners have a voice in the system, Bishop said.

Bishop also said he was convening a panel of experts to investigate the report and recommend changes.

So far those experts have not been named.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), the committee’s vice chairwoman, said the state legislature has a critical part to play in reforming the department in light of the report.

“Our role is to ask pointed questions about how we came to be so horribly dysfunctional in these facilities, and begin to examine ways we can make it better and ways that we as a legislature can mandate those improvements,” Cassidy said.

Juvenile justice advocates say a key improvement would be an independent inspector general for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, which runs the youth prisons.

That was proposed when the department was created in 2006, but legislators didn’t go for it.

“When we created the Department of Juvenile Justice one of the fundamental ideas was an ombudsman, and that didn’t happen. So that’s something that can be almost immediately created,” said the head of the Illinois Commission on Juvenile Justice, retired Judge George Timberlake.

Cassidy says that was a mistake and lawmakers “clearly” haven’t done enough to monitor the department.

“We can do more,” she said.

The House committee hearing is scheduled  for July 30 in Chicago.

Patrick Smith is a reporter for WBEZ, follow him on Twitter @pksmid.