Options for Reforming Illinois Juvenile Detention Center Discussed
ProPublica Illinois recently reported that prison guards and other employees from the Illinois Youth Center at Harrisburg have pursued more criminal charges over alleged assaults over the past two years than state’s four other juvenile detention centers combined. In nearly half of the cases, the youths had turned 18 while in custody and were charged as adults. If convicted, they were then sent to the Illinois Department of Corrections. This has certainly raised some eyebrows.
Now, state officials, along with human rights advocates and a federal judge, are proposing alternative methods to better handle youths and adolescents in detention centers accused of assaulting staff members, including finding them attorneys who are not affiliated with local public defenders and conducting additional training for correctional officers to encompass sessions related to being mindful of inmates’ mental health. The state has recently shifted toward a model that incorporates positive reinforcement and banning solitary confinement as a punitive measure.
Those prosecuted in Saline County Court have historically been represented by local attorneys who hold contracts to serve as public defenders, meaning clients allegedly receive unfair treatment.
“The children don’t get any justice in that courtroom. That’s the primary concern,” Ben Wolf, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, stated. “These cases are not handled the same way when they pop up in other counties. There’s more of a review process. There’s more fairness. These young people just get railroaded for the most part.” Court records show that prosecutions have disproportionately affected young African American men in particular from Cook County.
The ACLU appeared in court to discuss the department’s plan to address the detention center cases. State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, called the Dec. 5 hearing, which is set to include testimony about safety at the juvenile justice department as well as the state Department of Corrections.
Last Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly asked Wolf and ACLU attorney Lindsay Miller if they had attempted to connect attorneys who might be willing to represent clients appearing in Saline County Court in Harrisburg in order to eliminate any bias.
“It’s something we’ve been concerned about, so we’ve been asking around,” Miller replied. “We do have our eye on it, and I think he gave some really great suggestions, especially with the law school clinics. It’s something I don’t think we’ve considered before.”
Attorney Lowell Tison has indicated in interviews he handles approximately 100 cases a week himself. “It can be a trivial case, but it’s not about what they did,” he said. “It’s about who they did it to.”
Kathleen Bankhead, the state’s independent juvenile ombudsman, a position created in 2014, has expressed her concern. “I’m…concerned about the fairness and the process of Saline County,” she stated to ProPublica.
Heidi Mueller, the director of the juvenile justice department, said after the hearing. “It’s beyond our authority to provide legal representation. Personally, I think everyone is entitled to robust legal defense. Our legal system is based on that.”
“By empowering staffing teams to create proactive strategies to change youth behavior,” the Illinois’ Department of Juvenile Justice officials wrote in the court filing, “the Department hopes to see a reduction in youth misconduct and enhanced investment from staff.”