A major change for Illinois’ youth prisons is on hold. Gov. Pat Quinn last year pushed to merge the Department of Juvenile Justice into another agency, the Department of Children and Family Services. Quinn said it would lead to more treatment for incarcerated youth, though some lawmakers and a public employee union resisted the move. And, like many big ideas, the merger fell by the wayside. But there does appear to be change - however modest - coming to the state’s youth prison system.
Check out all the stories from our series Inside and Out: Young people and juvenile justice in Illinois.
It was only five years ago that the Department of Juvenile Justice separated from the adult prison system and became its own agency. But it floundered. Facilities were crumbling, unclean and unsafe. Few activities were available for the roughly 1200 incarcerated kids; not all got a full day of school and next to no job training was offered. More than half the youth released ended up getting in trouble and being sent back.
So, last year, Quinn proposed merging the Department of Juvenile Justice with DCFS, a larger agency that runs the foster care system.
“Okay, I think that it was an idea. Somebody came up with it. And it was like, ‘Oh, why don’t we do this?’” state Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Maywood, mockingly recalled.
At the time of Quinn’s proposal, Yarbrough chaired the committee that oversaw funding for youth prisons. She was not impressed.
“DCFS is a huge agency. And I just figured these kids would get lost,” Yarbrough said. “We just had taken these kids out of a big agency - Department of Corrections - so to throw them back into another big agency was not my idea of the right thing to do.”
Quinn, though, was determined. He issued an executive order, directing state agencies to work together and come up with a merger plan that lawmakers could consider. But the time line kept slipping - from weeks to months, to more months.
“We’re going to make this transition over the next six months,” Quinn told reporters in mid-July of last year. “Certainly by year’s end [in 2010], they’ll all be be put together.”
“I’d say it’s put on hold,” Arthur Bishop said in an interview this week. Bishop was hand-picked by Quinn a year ago to run the juvenile justice department.
“I’m not saying it’s something that you can never come back to, but right now this is our focus, and so we’re not spending too much time right now talking about merger.”
Bishop acknowledged the merger idea between the youth prison system and DCFS was going nowhere.
“As we went into the discussions around merger, we found that the collaborative relationships with other state agencies and other partners, allowed us to accomplish a number of the things that we’ve accomplished thus far, and so the focus is on the youth and the rehabilitation of the youth as opposed to what address DJJ sits in,” Bishop said.
Specifically, the department is relying on DCFS to help train a new kind of employee, called an “aftercare specialist,” basically a youth-focused parole officer.
Until recently, when kids were released, they were all monitored by parole officers employed by the adult Department of Corrections, and minor violations landed many back to prison.
But these “aftercare specialists” are supposed to meet the kids when they’re first incarcerated, get to know their families. Essentially, help keep parolees out of trouble, save taxpayers from the cost of imprisoning them again and keep the communities they’re returning to safer.
“It’s not only to reduce recidivism,” Bishop said. “But to ensure that a youth are involved in pro-social and positive things in the community, such as education, vocation and also in the appropriate services.”
But the progress here is markedly slower than expected. Bishop originally hoped to have about 20 of these aftercare specialists working with kids in Cook County by now. He has just 5.
“That’s the hiring process,” he said. “It’s not unusual. You have a target, and you identify individuals that are either coming from other state agencies or coming from other professions, and then sometimes when they find out what the job calls for, they make their own individual decisions.”
Bishop notes that an additional 15 are scheduled to begin training in August, though - like the last round - the final number could be much lower.
And this aftercare program is only temporary: a two-year grant using federal stimulus dollars. Gov. Quinn’s proposed budget this year included money to keep the program going, and begin to expand it statewide. But the legislature did not fund that. In fact, the juvenile justice department as a whole saw a $5-million cut from the last fiscal year.
Working with less, though, is the name of the game in state government these days. And Bishop’s efforts in his first year are earning cautiously positive marks from advocates.
“All of this incredibly [is] well-intentioned and a great deal of work,” said Elizabeth Clarke with the Juvenile Justice Initiative. “It is frustrating that given all of this, the conditions for the youth remain at the level that they are.”
Concerns such as those are affirmed by a report last week by the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group. It found problems at the St. Charles facility in recreational activities, maintenance and upkeep, safety and staff training - all things Bishop said he’s working on.
But the most challenging questions facing the juvenile justice department are much broader. They involve local and labor union politics, and are beyond the new director’s immediate reach. How many of the eight youth prisons around the state should be operating? How many staff should be working there? And how many kids should be incarcerated and for what offenses?
Those remaining and unsettled issues aside, Clarke contends that Gov. Quinn’s abandoned proposal to merge the Department of Juvenile Justice with DCFS was not a waste of time.
“It certainly did propel a really necessary discussion about the overall focus of the agency,” Clarke said. “Because juveniles are different. They need a treatment focus and they really do need more of a child welfare focus rather than an adult punishment, criminal focus.”
Whether that focus translates to better conditions for incarcerated youth, fewer repeat criminals and safer communities, that’s going to take a lot longer than a year to know for sure.