Almost nine out of every 10 kids who spend time in Illinois youth prisons end up going back to prison within three years of their release.
That high number - 86 percent, according to a report the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice prepared for the federal government last year - costs the state millions of dollars every year. And it’s a factor in the violence perpetrated and suffered by young people in Chicago every summer.
Everybody involved agrees that a key solution is getting these kids a special kind of help so they can stay out of prison. Something more than parole like adults get.
The state of Illinois is counting on a small pilot program in Cook County to lead the way in fixing juvenile parole.
The program is called Aftercare. The name gives an idea of all that’s intended: counseling, help with school and getting off drugs.
Officials are rushing to expand the Aftercare pilot statewide. But after three years running, there’s no evidence the Cook County pilot is working.
‘He’s a pretty good kid he just needs some support’
Adam is a 16-year-old kid who lives with his mom and four younger siblings in K-Town, a rough section of Chicago’s West Side.
Last March he was sent to the youth prison in St. Charles, Illinois on a gun charge. He got out in November, then was sent back briefly for a parole violation. When I first met him in March of this year he had been out for two months, was going to school and passing his drug tests.
He and his mom, Debra Wright, say for Adam that is a very big deal. And Adam thinks he can keep it up.
Adam is one of the kids on Aftercare, and that means instead of a parole officer he gets an aftercare specialist.
Like a regular parole officer, the specialist’s job is to make sure Adam is doing what he’s supposed to do, and staying out of trouble. But the specialist is also responsible for helping him do that: finding drug counseling to keep him from smoking weed; helping him get to school and constantly checking up on him—at least once a week.
Adam says he feels like he has two moms, his aftercare specialist and his parent.
Debra Wright is glad there is someone else around to keep Adam in line.
“She’s a good role model and she’s not trying to be hard on him and send him back. Because you get a lot of - excuse my french - dickheads as parole officers,” she said.
Adam is a good example of the challenging kids that the Aftercare program is trying to reach.
He has a long history of trouble with the law. Adam says he got sent to solitary confinement 15 times as punishment in the nine months he was inside. And he once spent four days in solitary for punching a guard in the face.
Besides his Aftercare specialist, Adam also gets support from Edwin Day, a youth and family advocate for the non-profit Youth Outreach Services. Day and a handful of others work with about 30 Aftercare kids who live on the West Side of Chicago.
Adam’s Aftercare specialist is supposed to identify the kinds of help he needs, and then Day uses his community connections to help get it for Adam.
Day says Adam can be a handful at times, “but he’s a pretty good kid … he just needs some support.”
And Day is a crucial part of that support. While the Aftercare specialists have more than 40 kids on their caseloads - almost twice the number they’re supposed to have - advocates like Day have about seven.
The Youth Outreach program isn’t expanding along with Aftercare, so most of the state workers on the front lines will be trying to reach kids with troubled pasts without any such support.
Experts say the result so far has been a program with good intentions but poor results.
‘Our young people are in a state of emergency right now’
In April, dozens of people on the West Side of Chicago gathered for a grim vigil.
They were marking the anniversary of a teenager’s death, killed a few years before.
There are a million reasons why fixing the support system for kids getting out of prison is important: bringing down the number of kids who get sent back would mean big savings, for one thing, and the state is betting millions on this restructuring.
But the major reason is scenes like this prayer vigil. The kids who cycle through Illinois youth prisons are picked up out of violent neighborhoods, locked up for a time and then sent home to those same chaotic places. And when they get back they are more likely to commit another crime.
“The youth that we get … they’re involved with the violence. Either they’ve been shot or their friends have been shot,” Day said.
I really wanted to go out with the Aftercare specialists who are on the front lines of this new program. I spent months trying to arrange it, but the Department of Juvenile Justice refused to let me see them at work.
So I ended up riding along with Day as he did the rounds in Austin and Lawndale one afternoon in May instead.
“Our young people are in a state of emergency right now, and … we’re trying to advocate against the violence,” Day said.
It’s important to remember that Day and his organization represent Aftercare at its absolute best. Instead of one person helping and checking up on them, these kids have two. And thanks to the organization he works for, Day has immediate access to mentoring, counseling and drug treatment.
Even still, what I saw when I went out with Day was a Sisyphean task. None of the kids who we went to check on were where they were supposed to be - each technically in violation of parole.
At one point, Day saw one of his Aftercare kids on the street, skipping school. Day flagged him down and gave him a ride to class, but when we got there the kid didn’t want to get out. He said at one in the afternoon, it was too late to be worth going to school.
Day was unfazed.
At the very least, he said, the time he spent driving the kid to and from school was one hour where the young man couldn’t be the victim of a crime or be arrested. And he counts every minute like that as a step to a potential breakthrough. Day wants the kids on Aftercare to know that he cares about them and isn’t going anywhere.
During the drive to school, the truant he picked up said he didn’t want to go to school because he is too far behind. As a 17-year-old reading at a third-grade level, he says he thinks it will be too much work to catch up.
It is this kind of hopelessness that Aftercare specialists will have to battle in order to be successful, and that is a hard, long fight. But experts say there are ways the Department of Juvenile Justice could be smarter in its strategy to make it easier.
‘A plane that we’re building as we fly it’
Elizabeth Clarke is the head of the Juvenile Justice Initiative.
She has been working on improving Illinois juvenile justice since before the Department of Juvenile Justice even existed.
In fact, she helped create it back in 2006.
Clarke says fixing parole has been a key goal of the agency since it began eight years ago. And she’s frustrated they still haven’t gotten it right.
The Cook County pilot program started in the spring of 2011, but the department hasn’t done a single study of its effectiveness—or at least not one that it’s willing to share with the public.
What numbers are available do not paint a positive picture.
A key goal of Aftercare is to reduce the number of youth sent back to prison because of a parole violation. But the number of Cook County youth sent back actually went up in the first year of the program.
“Any measure of success depends first and foremost on decreasing the rate of return. If we still have a 53 percent return, then whatever that Cook pilot is doing is not having a positive impact,” Clarke said.
DJJ’s new director Candice Jones says she respects Clarke, but she doesn’t think it’s fair to judge the Cook County pilot program based on a statewide figure.
Jones took over DJJ at the end of January, and she says she wants her regime to be more open and transparent.
And she says there aren’t any Aftercare-specific numbers to show whether it’s working.
Clarke and other experts I talked to complained about the department’s lack of transparency. But Jones protests that she isn’t hiding information, there just isn’t any data to share.
“We know based on what other people are doing that these are the right models,” Jones said. “It’s always best to be able to wait until you have the best, clearest data to make decisions but we don’t always have that luxury. You have to make some real-time decisions about a plane that we’re building as we fly it.”
The Aftercare model is the darling of juvenile justice advocates throughout the country and it has been around for a long time.
Jones, and just about everyone else I talked to, pointed to Pennsylvania’s Aftercare program as a model to emulate.
Kids in Pennsylvania go back to prison at a rate of about 22 percent. In Illinois it’s 53 percent if you count the kids who go back to youth prisons. The number jumps to 86 percent if you include those who end up in adult prisons too.
Though Pennsylvania is the Aftercare model, its program is fundamentally different from the one Illinois is implementing.
For the most part Pennsylvania eschews youth prison altogether. Their Aftercare treatment starts as soon as a kid is adjudicated and gets sent off to group homes with targeted treatment. They say those placement facilities are the core of Aftercare.
Illinois doesn’t have anything like that.
John Maki, the director of prison watchdog John Howard Association, says he agrees with the concept of Aftercare, but that so far, Illinois is doing it wrong.
“At a certain level words don’t matter, it’s about what is a system set up to do?” Maki said. “And this is a system that by-and-large teaches kids to live in prison and teaches kids how to re-offend.”
‘It’s all stick, there’s no carrot’
The only evaluation of the Cook County pilot that has ever been done was by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall—and that was just how it works, not if it does.
And the study exposes serious flaws.
It’s no surprise that some of the biggest needs of kids on a slippery slope back to prison are substance abuse treatment, education and mentoring. But researchers note that in most of the cases they looked at, Aftercare specialists failed to connect kids to these services.
And many of the recorded care plans look an awful lot like adult parole: Lots of drug testing and supervision. Much less mentoring or help with school.
“Aftercare is, despite the rhetoric of it being about providing services, it’s all stick, there’s no carrot,” Maki said.
However, Maki is heartened by the moves Jones has made so far on Aftercare.
And Jones says she’s making those changes because she’s knows the stakes.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do and we have a tiny little team of people doing it and we have to do it right,” Jones said. “Any fumbles, any missteps can undercut the foundation of what really is the right thing to do.”
The stakes are even clearer about 10 miles west of Jones’s downtown Chicago office.
The last stop on Edwin Day’s rounds is the home of Adam, the 16 year old from K-Town. It’s been about six weeks since I sat down with Adam and his mom, and Day says since then, things have taken a bad turn.
Adam has stopped going to school, he’s been smoking weed and his mom says he’s back out on the street selling drugs.
When we get to Adam’s house, he’s not in. Day tries his cell phone and Adam picks up, but when he realizes who it is he mumbles something and hangs up. When Day calls again it goes straight to voicemail.
Again Day takes a positive view: he’s glad to know Adam is still able to pick up his phone, it means he hasn’t been arrested.
Even though he knows Adam is probably out committing crimes, as long as he is still out of prison, there is still time for Day to reach him.
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him on twitter @pksmid.