Illinois lawmakers looking at high incidence of sexual abuse in youth prisons

July 30, 2013

(Photo courtesy of Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice)
IYC Chicago

Illinois state legislators are considering reforms to the youth prison system to address sexual abuse that was brought to light in a recent federal study.  The study by the bureau of justice statistics found that more than 15 percent of kids in custody reported being victims of sexual abuse. It’s one of the highest rates in the nation and the report is giving advocates new ammunition to push changes they’ve wanted for a long time.

They pushed those changes at a hearing Tuesday held by state legislators in Chicago. Lisa Jacobs with the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission told lawmakers there must be a better grievance process in the Department of Juvenile Justice so kids can lodge complaints without fear of retaliation. She says an inspector general should be appointed to investigate complaints and an ombudsman should be within the facilities taking kids' complaints before they turn into major problems.

Jacobs says there needs to be more transparency all around. “Watchdog access, family access is a big theme that we’ve been talking about, an ombudsman, we need to know what happens in these facilities,” said Jacobs.

Arthur Bishop, the director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, told lawmakers that he fully supports the creation of an ombudsman position.

Julie Biehl with the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Law School told lawmakers that kids need to have attorneys during incarceration.  She says when kids have parole hearings they often don’t know what’s going on and they don’t represent themselves well.  That causes longer stays, perhaps unnecessarily long. She says that over-incarceration costs the state a lot of money.

“It’s important for youth to have an advocate, someone they can trust, someone [whose] sole job is to zealously represent their interests,” said Biehl.

Biehl has been pushing this idea for several years but says the recent report on sexual abuse gives her proposal added urgency. She says attorneys for incarcerated kids could help prevent sexual abuse because kids would have an independent, confidential person to report the abuse to, hopefully stopping it early.