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Data driven: Emerging adult court being considered in McLean County

Judge Casey Costigan
WGLT file
"Part of our job in the criminal justice system is not only to deal with the individuals that come before us, but also to prevent recidivism, prevent them from coming before us in the first place," said Judge Casey Costigan, seen here at a panel discussion at ISU.

McLean County courts hope to use data on juvenile offenders to reduce adult crime and punishment in central Illinois. The effort has two prongs — improving interventions for troubled children, and a potential specialty court for offenders aged 18 to 25.

This could accelerate changes already happening.

The seeds of the new approach to emerging adult and juvenile offenders came from a bloody year in Bloomington- Normal. In 2018, there were multiple shootings and killings. Young adults committed a lot of those offenses. The county's criminal justice coordinating council asked the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development at Illinois State University to collect information on juvenile offenders.

Mark Fellheimer is the chief judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit.

“You know when I started on the bench in 2008, we never had data. Nothing was really data-driven. Judges operated in a vacuum in your court room, and you dealt with the cases that came on. I think the mentality now is changed,” said Fellheimer.

The studies show there aren't that many young offenders booked into the McLean County Juvenile Detention Center compared with the general population.

Mark Fellheimer
Mark Fellheimer is the chief judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit.

“I was frankly surprised," said Fellheimer. "A relatively low number of a total number of juvenile offenders ... are causing the bulk of the problems in that age group. Contrary to the news, which will often times appear that violence is rampant.”

Of those who do go to juvie, fewer go on to spend time in the adult jail. Of those that do, an even smaller portion commits multiple offenses. McLean County Court Services Director Suzanne Montoya said the overall juvenile trend is down. She said McLean County is rare in that it has Juvenile Court Services screen police reports instead of state's attorneys to see whether a case can be diverted and not forwarded to prosecutors for a formal petition for delinquency.

Montoya said there are about 500 fewer police reports on juveniles per year than there were a decade ago, adding delinquency petitions are down dramatically, too.

“Probably 10 years ago, we were averaging about 50 or 60 clients on each individual officer’s caseload. Now, between three officers, we have the number of 60. So, they're in about 20 clients each on juvenile probation,” said Montoya.

The reasons for the drops vary. Filing practices changed. The way cannabis cases are handled changed. Juvenile thefts at shopping malls declined — along with the malls. She said juvenile probation cases also have dropped overall because there's more of an effort to keep kids out of court through restorative justice work and through the schools.

Though the juvenile numbers are down, Montoya said the causes of offenses are changing, troublingly so for younger children.

“There's been a heavy increase in mental health issues with juveniles and the ages are decreasing with that, too. I've seen reports down to 5- or 6-year-olds that have had suicidal attempts or mental health issues,” said Montoya.

The Stevenson Center is now reaching out to a couple segments of the juvenile offender population. Judge Casey Costigan oversees specialty courts in the county. Costigan said first they're talking to high-risk offenders who have had only one touch with the juvenile court system, and nothing since.

“Part of our job in the criminal justice system is not only to deal with the individuals that come before us, but also to prevent recidivism, prevent them from coming before us in the first place,” said Costigan.

The goal is to learn what the system did right in those cases, what program worked, what intervention helped, how McLean County can build on that. Costigan said they're also interviewing some who have gone on to adult jail in McLean County and even to state prisons.

“Is there something in the family that we could have intervened in at an earlier point in time to prevent that? Are we seeing a pattern with certain groups that we can intervene in to go ahead and prevent them from progressing to an adult offender," said Costigan.

A multidisciplinary approach

There are no conclusions yet on how better to target services to reduce crime for young adults and for juveniles. The judges and court officials said it likely it will take a multidisciplinary approach. And chief judge Fellheimer said defining the best time to offer resources and intervention is tricky. It can induce problems that weren't there before.

“Evidence-based practices show putting too many services on a low-risk offender can lead to worse results. So, it's trying to identify which ones need it and what exactly do they need,” he said.

Given the increase in mental health needs for juveniles, judges and court services workers have welcomed the county's expansion of those services and potential future expansions.

"Part of our job in the criminal justice system is not only to deal with the individuals that come before us, but also to prevent recidivism, prevent them from coming before us in the first place."
Judge Casey Costigan

“We're always looking at the least restrictive method of detention," said Judge Jason Chambers, who handles delinquency court. "If a kid is in the detention center, it's usually because we don't really feel like we have any other safe option, either for the child or for the community. Sometimes, we're looking at monitoring. Sometimes, we're looking at home confinement. A crisis center might give us another option.”

There are practical bottlenecks to improving the system. Court administrator Will Scanlon said shortages are simply not likely to go away, even if the county can scrounge up grants or other revenue sources.

Even all the money in the world won't create juvenile and psychiatric services if psychiatrists won't come to Bloomington- Normal, said Scanlon.

Chambers said a lot of delays in delinquency court are tied to the long wait times for psychiatric evaluations. And the delays sometimes happen during a critical period for intervention, he said.

Suzanne Montoya said with only about 60 juvenile probationers, McLean County might not have enough demand for a completely separate youthful offender court. Specialty courts, such as drug courts, operate on a systems-of-care approach to tailor services to the needs of people. Montoya said juvenile courts already function that way.

All is not lost

Even when kids hit age 18 and move into adult court, all is not lost. The justice system is huge, making it hard to change. But change is percolating. Some California counties have had what's called an "emerging adult court" for years. Fellheimer said Chicago started one last year

“In the last couple of years, I think science has caught up with the notion that when age 18 was selected as the age of majority, that really wasn't based on anything hard and real. Not every 18-year-old-plus brain develops at the same rate. Maybe the brain doesn't mature until up to age 24,” said Fellheimer.

The science of late adolescence — early adult brain development — is percolating into the system at the local level. Judge Costigan said he is seeing it come in post-conviction petition requests to reconsider years-old sentences that might seem too harsh today. Chambers said there's even a statute that requires judges to consider brain development and age at sentencing when a case is transferred from juvenile court to adult court.

“And sometimes to not consider mandatory sentencing options that would be required for somebody who is 30 or 40 who committed that offense," said Chambers.

Suzanne Montoya said the young adult segment of offenders in McLean County could become a separate court with one judge presiding.

“I think the philosophy behind that and why that's so beneficial is then that one judge is just very in tune with that age range of 18 to 25. Also, one judge will be able to process the case from beginning to end,” she said.

Even before the creation of a formal emerging adult court, Montoya said the county is managing the emerging adult population through court services, but at sentencing only.

“When they are sentenced through the court system and they come through our department for intakes, anybody in that 18- to 25-year-old age range that also scores moderate or high risk on our risk assessment through our department are then filtered into the emergent adult unit,” said Montoya.

She said a true emerging adult court would intervene before conviction and perhaps offer more hope.

McLean County court leaders said they plan to visit Chicago to see how that emerging adult court operates. There could be grant funding to start one in McLean County, though there's always the hedge that grants come with strings attached that could shape the services offered.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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