Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to remove identifying information about the teenager at the center of this article who reached out years after publication requesting that his name be removed.
For some Illinois kids, the state’s budget impasse means going to prison instead of going home. That’s because the lack of a state spending plan is forcing a universally-renowned program to disappear.
The program is called Redeploy Illinois. It takes serious or repeat juvenile offenders, who would otherwise be headed to prison, and gives them therapy, mentoring, drug counseling, a case manager and sometimes, even round-the-clock supervision.
The idea is to invest in troubled kids, address their underlying problems and save money in the long run. Redeploy costs about $6,000 a year, for each kid. That’s compared to an expense of more than $110,000 to send that same kid to prison.
Last year, Redeploy saved the state about $30 million, and kept almost 500 kids out of the state’s youth prisons. One of the kids it helped was a teenager we are calling Thomas.
WBEZ agreed to his request to use a pseudonym to protect his identity as a youth who committed crimes.
Thomas works at the fast food joint Beef-a-Roo in Rockford. He said the minimum wage job is just “alright.” But it is a big deal that Thomas has a job: Before the 18-year-old got hooked up with Redeploy Illinois, he was headed down a bad path.
“Once my dad died, passed away, everything changed,” he said. “I had to switch schools … everything started going downhill for me.”
That was in 2010, when Thomas was 12.
His mom, Cynthia said her son didn’t grieve at all, which was odd because the two were “extremely close.”
She said in the years after her husband’s death, Thomas was, “pretty much out of control.”
“He was doing whatever he wanted to do, coming home when he felt like it, running with the wrong crowd,” she said.
And he started getting arrested.
First he was caught breaking into a school, then he was with a friend shoplifting at the mall. Things escalated when he got caught stealing a car.
“Real pretty girl at school, stole her dad’s car out of the driveway and wanted Thomas to drive it and of course he hit a car and he ran,” his mother remembered.
His last arrest was for selling his medication for his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder at school.
Thomas was headed either to a youth prison, or an out-of-state boot camp. But Redeploy gave him a last chance to stay at home.
Cynthia has had to work full time since her husband died. She said the Redeploy case manager, her name was Sarah, gave her son support she just couldn’t provide.
“He had somebody to take him where he needed to go, who made sure he did his school work,” she said. “They were able to talk to him and he listened to them, he didn’t want to always listen to me. You know that’s the way it is, they’re mean to the ones they love.”
Now, Thomas has a job, a girlfriend and is about to earn his G.E.D.
“I’m very proud of him, I’ve got my son back, he’s just totally turned around. And I pretty much credit that to Redeploy,” Cynthia said.
In October, the Redeploy program in Rockford shut down. And this program, beloved by all, is disappearing across the state.
John Johnson runs juvenile probation for Winnebago County.
“Due to the budget impasse, our provider could no longer continue without being financed by the state,” Johnson said.
Winnebago is one of 23 counties forced to either stop accepting new kids, or close their Redeploy programs altogether because Illinois doesn’t have a budget. That’s more than half of the state’s participating programs, and there are even more teetering on the brink.
“The ending of the program was like someone else walking away from the families and those kids,” Johnson said. “That was my biggest concern, ‘what’s going to happen to these minors and their families when someone else just walks out the door?’”
Johnson said they’ve already had kids sent to youth prison who would have been eligible for Redeploy; and there are juveniles in the county detention center right now who will head to the Department of Juvenile Justice because of Redeploy’s absence.
And, he said this isn’t just a matter of a good program being put on hold: They won’t be able to just flip the switch when funding is restored.
Real damage has already been done, and it will need to be untangled whenever the state finally gets a budget in place.
“My concern is the length of time, because we’ve already lost staff so it’s almost like re-starting the program all over again,” Johnson said.
Cynthia said she doesn’t believe state politicians realize this budget fight means kids like her son are being locked up instead of getting the help they need.
They can’t, Cynthia said, or they wouldn’t be doing this.
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer/reporter. Follow him @pksmid.