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During the past decade, reforms of the juvenile justice system in Illinois have resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of youth locked up in Illinois prisons. While these changes are a step in the right direction, more work is needed to develop approaches to juvenile justice that are truly conducive to community safety and positive youth development.

  • Incarceration is not an evidence-based response to youthful offending, and does not make communities safer.
  • Even at their best, large prison-like settings are unable to provide the holistic support and rehabilitation that young people need—especially those at highest risk.
  • Research shows that most youth, including those involved in the most serious offenses, age out of these behaviors—while even brief experiences in prison or detention can result in poorer outcomes, including increased risk of incarceration as adults.
  • Developing community supports for youth and ensuring that they are equally accessible is critical to the safety of both youth and communities.

In 2018, the CFJC launched the series Community Safety & the Future of Illinois’ Youth Prisons, to provide information and in-depth analysis to stakeholders and to help inform the development and continued improvement of the state’s juvenile justice system. The series is the culmination of many years of research, extensive surveys and interviews, and a comprehensive review of research by academics and practitioners. Community Safety & the Future of Illinois’ Youth Prisons overviews the history and evolution of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and explores the way in which factors such race, youth development, and community dynamics impact the treatment of youth in conflict with the law.

The series will conclude with a detailed set of recommendations, consistent with calls from researchers and practitioners nationwide, for a five-year plan to end Illinois’ use of large, adult-modeled prisons for youth and to expand alternatives to incarceration.

January 2018, Vol. 1, "Restoring the State Legacy of Rehabilitation and Reform,” examines the changes made in the state’s youth prison system since the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) was created in 2006. We look at the successes and the remaining challenges for IDJJ. 

February 2018, Vol. 2, “Parents as Partners: Family Connection and Youth Incarceration,” explains how Illinois youth prisons — large, distant from families, and very difficult to visit — contribute to deterioration of youth relationships and community ties that are needed for success when youth are released from incarceration.

March 2018, Vol. 3, “The Costliest Choice: Economic Impact of Youth Incarceration,” reports Illinois has experienced a substantial increase in the state’s per capita youth prison costs and explains how Illinois could transition youth committed to state custody into settings that achieve better outcomes with fewer negative side effects than the incapacitation-driven youth prison model.

June 2018, Vol. 4, “Illinois’ Incarcerated Girls and LGBTQ Youth,” shows girls are being incarcerated in Illinois for less serious offenses and with less delinquency history than boys, while evidence suggests that LGBTQ youth are significantly overrepresented in IDJJ.

March 2020, Vol. 5, “Harm Instead of Healing: Imprisoning Youth with Mental Illness,” explains how IDJJ leadership has improved mental health treatment over the past decade. However, the adult-prison model remains incompatible for providing youth the care they need, and Illinois should transition to a model of providing high-quality services primarily in the community and in smaller residential facilities closer to youth’s homes.

August 2020, Vol. 6, “Community Convenings: Reimagining Investments in Illinois’ Youth,” presents the voices and wisdom of the young people who have been locked up in Illinois youth prisons, parents of those youth, other youth and families impacted by the juvenile legal system and staff from community organizations serving youth and their families. 

November 2020, Vol. 7, “Going Back Inside: Reflections,” Denzel Burke writes about the experience of going back inside the state’s prison system – the places where he spent five years of his youth.

November 2020, Vol. 8, “Imagination From Incarceration: Creative Convenings Inside Youth Prisons,” reports on CFJC’s more than 30 convenings of youth behind the walls of the state’s five youth prisons and additional convenings of discussions with staff and incarcerated adults who previously were held in youth prisons.

Illinois Youth Prisons Receive C+ Grade — Improvement Needed

report cardIn a report card delivered to state legislators in December 2017, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice received a C+ grade with improvement needed.

The report card is based on a survey of 150 juvenile system stakeholders, who were asked to evaluate DJJ's progress on 12 key points central to DJJ's mission.

"It is just one form of feedback, but is consistent with the other information we have gathered: according to many who are familiar with Illinois youth prisons, while IDJJ has shown significant progress since its failing days as a subdivision of IDOC, it is still falling well short of both best practices and Illinois’ own standards, in many vital areas," Julie L. Biehl, CFJC Director, said in testimony to the Illinois House Appropriations - Public Safety Committee.

Biehl called for a 5-year plan to eliminate large-scale prisons. “Within five years, no young person should be incarcerated due to a lack of community services, supervision, or support, and every youth who is still committed to state custody should be held in a small, local, therapeutic setting," Biehl said.