Task force calls for changes in juvenile detentions

By Sharita Forrest Education Editor University of Illinois News Bureau

A report on juvenile detention statistics in Illinois, based on data from the Juvenile Monitoring Information System at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, sparked changes at one county youth detention facility.

Peoria County Juvenile Detention Center Superintendent Brian Brown had a hunch that his county’s detention rates might be disproportionately higher than those of similar-sized counties, but he didn’t have the data at his fingertips to make comparisons and advocate for needed reforms.

That began to change in 2019 when a task force appointed by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission issued a report on the admissions to counties’ juvenile detention facilities from 2017-19. During that time, Peoria County had taken into custody 90 children under the age of 13 —significantly more than any other county.

“It was alarming to say the least. Not only were we the leader in a very bad category — we were leaps and bounds above everybody else,” said Brown, who has worked in juvenile justice for 23 years and served as the superintendent of the Peoria County Juvenile Detention Center for the past 13 years.

Brown said the data “were an eye-opener for us,” and served as a catalyst for change.

As of the most recent report, issued in June, Peoria County had detained only one child under age 13 during 2021, said Douglas C. Smith, the director of the Center for Prevention Research and Development at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The center operates the Juvenile Monitoring Information System that collects the data from county juvenile detention facilities. All 16 juvenile detention centers in Illinois are required to enter their facilities’ admissions data into the JMIS at least monthly. Smith is the principal investigator on the Juvenile Justice Systems Improvement grant that supports the JMIS. The grant is funded by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission.

“Going from 37 to one in a year is pretty remarkable and an amazing success story,” Smith said. “It takes a lot of courage to take a good look at the data and have discussions with all the stakeholders about these difficult issues.”

The Juvenile Monitoring Information System sparked changes in one county’s detention policies.

The commission partnered with CPRD and Loyola University Chicago to research the issues giving rise to detention of children 10-12 years old and to develop strategies to reduce those detention admissions and address the pronounced racial inequities, while enhancing the well-being of youths, families and communities.

Doug Smith, the director of the Center for Prevention Research and Development, is the principal investigator on the grant from the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission that funds the system. (Photo by Becky Ponder/University of Illinois News)

Peoria County officials’ reform efforts included revising the intake policy to reduce the number of offenses that were mandatory admissions. They also revamped the screening instrument that includes data such as the presenting offense that brought the child into contact with authorities, whether the child was wanted on a warrant or had a history of other offenses and their age — all of which factor into a composite score that may influence the decision to detain them.

“We started focusing a bit more on the presenting offense and less on some of their history and other factors,” Brown said. “We also added some mitigating factors that took points away based on their age.”

By revamping the screening instrument, Peoria County began chipping away at its admissions rates and began making progress toward the end of 2019, Brown said.

He chairs the Illinois Probation and Court Services Association’s Detention Committee, which is developing a universal screening form for use by all Illinois counties.

In a report issued in February, the task force pointed to JMIS data demonstrating various problems with juvenile detention in Illinois, including counties’ inconsistent use of it, widely varying lengths of stay for similar offenses and racial disparities in detention rates.

While state law requires every juvenile detention facility to have a scorable screening instrument to admit youths to secure juvenile detention centers, admissions practices vary from county to county. A domestic battery charge might be a mandatory detention in one county but not in another, regardless of the child’s age or history of prior offenses, Brown said.

Detention of juveniles ages 10-12 shows the racial and ethnic disparities found in adult incarceration. While Black children currently represent about 15 percent of Illinois’ youths, they accounted for 71 percent of the admissions to juvenile detention facilities in 2019, Smith said.

While annual detention admissions of children ages 10-12 declined by about 32 percent from 2017-19, the task force said detention is a life-altering, traumatizing and often stigmatizing experience that is associated with poorer physical and mental health, as well as higher rates of substance abuse and incarceration as an adult.

Lisa Jacobs, the vice chair of the commission and manager of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University, has been instrumental in examining whether detention is necessary for young children, Smith said.

“Our mission is to improve youth outcomes and to enhance public safety. We want to utilize juvenile detention as a last resort and for the shortest time possible. The research is pretty clear regarding the possible long-term detrimental effects that juvenile detention may have on children,” Brown said.

Research on the detention of 10- to 12-year-old children compiled by the Center for Prevention Research and Development indicated that nearly half of these children have unmet medical needs, and more than two-thirds of them have at least one psychiatric disorder. The task force suggested a range of programs and services that Illinois could utilize to deflect children from entering the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and better address their mental health and physical problems or family conflicts.

HB 3767, a bill currently before the Illinois Senate, would amend the Juvenile Justice Act to raise the minimum age for detention from 10 to 13. Task force members suggested that if the bill passes, a planning period should be utilized prior to its implementation to address resource gaps and develop alternatives to detention that attend to children’s well-being as well as to public safety.