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Standards, Oversight For Jailed Kids Need To Improve: Watchdog Report

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A prison watchdog group in Illinois is calling on the state to take a bigger role in scrutinizing Illinois’ 16 pre-trial juvenile detention centers.  

Gov. J.B. Pritzker last summer called for getting rid of Illinois’ five state-run juvenile facilities and instead focusing on community-based rehabilitation and treatment services. 

But the county-run pre-trial detention centers will remain, and a recent report from the John Howard Association says they need better oversight.

John Howard Association executive director Jennifer Vollen-Katz says the standards used to inspect the county-run juvenile detention facilities are merely perfunctory. 

“They don't really get to the treatment and well-being of the kids," Vollen-Katz said. "It's much more focused on sort of the physical structure and meeting kind of correctional criteria, and we think that the standards need to really focus on treatment and well-being of the individual for who are detained.”

While Vollen-Katz applauded Pritzker's four-year plan to restructure juvenile justice in Illinois, she said an even more wholesale approach needs to be taken.

“It's important not to be putting kids into adult-like prisons, which we know hurt them rather than help them," Vollen-Katz said. "But I think we need to start thinking further towards the front of the system, in so many ways, about how kids come to be in the justice system at all."

Some of the issues that should be addressed include looking at an appropriate age of detention, Vollen-Katz said, in addition to “consequences that are available for youth in conflict with the law are tailored for juveniles" and whether juvenile justice laws are appropriate.

“In many ways, they are not right now," she said. The John Howard Association's report calls for the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Ombudsman, which oversees the five state-run juvenile prisons, to assume oversight of the county detention facilities as well. Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Director Heidi Mueller said the  obbudsman office's  oversight pushes the agency "in a good way." 

"Even though we may not always agree on…what is the best decision in a particular circumstance, it does really make me feel reassured that there is always somebody standing on that side of the young people and their families, and advocating for them zealously," Mueller said.

Vollen-Katz said the ombudsman's office, an entity created in 2014, has "been instrumental in uncovering issues" within the juvenile justice department, so it would make "an enormous amount of sense" for the office to extend its oversight to the county-run pre-trial juvenile detention centers.

Mueller declined to comment on making the changes called for by the report, but said she appreciated the work of the ombudsman.

"I think in a system like corrections…there's just a lot of countervailing pressures and it really helps kind of balance the approach and make sure that you center on the true purpose of your job, which is to help young people," she said.

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is the NPR Illinois News Editor and a lead editor of Illinois Issues' feature articles, working with freelance writers, and is curator of the Equity blog. Maureen joined the staff in 1998 as projects editor. Previously, she worked at three Illinois daily newspapers, most recently the suburban Chicago-based Daily Herald, where she served stints as an education reporter and copy editor. She graduated in 1985 with a bachelor's in journalism. She also has a master's degree in English from the University of Illinois at Springfield.