Some reformers say Illinois' minimum age for juvenile detention needs to go up.
Justin Wright still remembers well the time he spent as an 11-year-old at the Cook County Juvenile Detention facility. That was nearly 25 years ago.
“When I went in there, I was a scared little kid. But I came out a hardened criminal,” he says.
In Illinois, the minimum age of detention for minors is 10 years old. The national standard is 13, as is suggested by the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a project led by the Baltimore-based private philanthropy, the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In comparison, the minimum age in Illinois to sentence a minor to juvenile state prison — as opposed to detention — after trial is 13.
To match these national standards, some Illinois legislators and juvenile justice advocates are pushing to raise the age from 10 to 13, citing scientific research into the lifelong effects after detention. However, the proposed measure was not expected to get the votes necessary without its language being amended to allow minors under 13 who have committed certain felonies or offenses to be held in detention. For some advocates, this change would defeat the purpose of the original bill.
Juvenile detention centers are the equivalent of adult jails. By law, youth are generally not kept in detention for more than 30 days at a time — often these are probation sentences or days spent waiting for a trial or placement after trial. But some do fall through the cracks: in instances where a minor is mentally ill, when the minor is charged as an adult or when the minor has no place to go. In such instances, the length of stay may surpass 30 days.
In Wright’s case, he had been admitted to the juvenile detention center after the Department of Children and Family Services could not place him in a foster home. His mother had signed custody over to the department after being unable to manage 11-year-old Wright, who was skipping school, breaking into cars and staying out late.
Had it not been for the two years that he spent at the Cook County Juvenile Detention facility, Wright says, his life would have been different. “I would have avoided a life of crime,” he says.
Researchers within the state and across the country have tried to measure the lifelong outcomes of those who have been detained as minors. A project of this magnitude began in 1995, when a group at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine formed the Northwestern Juvenile Project. Researchers randomly selected 1,829 detained youth at the Cook County Juvenile Detention facility and followed them into their adult lives, interviewing them annually over 16 years. Justin Wright was one of those youths.
One aspect of the long-term study focused on the positive outcomes measured at five and 12 years after detention. The study found that former female detainees were more likely to stay away from criminal activity than former male detainees both at the five and 12-year mark. The same trend applied to educational attainment and mental health. The study also found that non-Hispanic men were also more likely than African-American and Hispanic men to stay away from criminal activity and to obtain an education.
Wright went on to join a gang in Chicago after he was emancipated by the state at age 17. He says that associating with adolescent gang members at the Cook County Juvenile Detention facility led him to believe that there was no other way to lead his life. He went to prison in two separate instances during his late teens and early 20s. At 18, he shot at a car in a gang related incident. Soon after he was released for that incident, he went back to prison for counterfeiting money.
It’s unclear if Wright would have made a detour from prison as an adult if he had not spent time as a juvenile detainee. Some advocates, like Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, an advocacy group based in Evanston, says it could have helped.
“Children are more likely to age out of criminal offending,” says Clarke. “People age out of criminal offending all across the world, if we could just get out of the way. But starting with locking a child who has never been away from home before, in a prison-setting and a cell, and shutting that door and leaving them all alone in the dark, when they are elementary school age —10, 11 and 12 — you are going to have lifelong issues, and you haven’t even proven them guilty yet.”
Two years ago, the General Assembly amended the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 by mandating that any minor under 13 not be kept in a detention facility unless a local youth service provider has been contacted and was unable to accept the minor. This year advocates want to amend the act by raising the minimum age of detention from 10 to 13 years, giving these 10, 11 and 12 year olds the opportunity to age out of their criminal offending and avoid detention altogether.
Sponsored by Democratic Representative Justin Slaughter of Chicago, House Bill 2619 would place those elementary school-aged youths into detention alternatives. But the measure has stalled in the House, and is not expected to be considered again until the next legislative session.
Clarke says that this decision came after multiple changes to the bill were considered. The most recent change would have included several exceptions. By the court’s discretion, when the minor is charged with certain violations or felony offenses, the minor would still be admitted to a detention facility. But Clarke says that these amendments would take away from the bill’s original intent.
These exceptions have “so many offenses and such broad categories that [the bill] would have ended up without any meaningful prohibitions on detention of little kids.”
For the last 16 years, beginning with Juvenile Redeploy in 2006, advocates for juvenile criminal justice reform have pushed for legislation addressing the number of youth ending up in juvenile prisons. But little has been done to address the issues stemming from detaining elementary school-aged youth.
Years after the implementation of Juvenile Redeploy, the number of youth ending up in juvenile prison has decreased, as has the number of youth detained in detention facilities. Through the program’s fiscal incentive, counties are encouraged to treat juvenile offenders within the community through programs that are later reimbursed. Following the same model, Adult Redeploy was established in 2010.
According to Clarke, advocates and state legislators only recently are turning their attention to children arrested and held in detention.
Wright says he wishes that more had taken notice of the issue when he was a juvenile detainee. He says that he believes that the circumstances leading him to detention could have been addressed in a different setting. He could have then avoided the traumatic experiences that followed in detention: meeting older, troubled kids who eventually, he says, drew him into a life of gang banging.
Detention staff "could have done more for me, but they didn’t. I didn’t get any help.”
But detention facilities are not meant to address any mental or health issues, says Dr. Linda Teplin, director of the Health Disparities and Public Policy Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. She led the Northwestern Juvenile Project since its inception.
Retired Judge George Timberlake echoes that thought. He is the chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, a federally mandated 25-member State Advisory Group to the Governor, the General Assembly and the Illinois Department of Human Services. Timberlake says that detention centers are needed to serve two purposes: to keep youth from running away after making an arrest and to keep minors from hurting others or themselves if they pose an immediate risk.
“The point is, there is a purpose for detention. It is not therapeutic, and it is not for a long-term place. But it does add to the trauma that an individual kid has experienced in his neighborhood,” he says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as Teplin, suggest that pediatricians and members of the community need to take an active role in protecting youth from the potential harmful effects of incarceration and to lessen any other negative effects.
Teplin says that communities should hold some of the responsibility of their youth’s well-being — and that includes addressing the issues that lead to juvenile arrests.
Juvenile detention data from the last several years shows that detained youth across the 16 county-run detention facilities have decreased overall. According to data compiled by the Center for Prevention Research and Development at the University of Illinois, the number of youth admitted to detention facilities from 2011 to 2015 has decreased by 13 percent.
And according to the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, there were 173 children ages 10, 11 and 12 held in detention centers statewide in 2016. The greatest number were 12-year-olds.
Advocates argue that preventing these 173 minors from entering detentions in the first place could have saved counties money. According to Clarke, the average cost of detention statewide is approximately $100-per-day, per minor. This is in comparison to community-based services, such as those offered through Redeploy Illinois, which cost about $20 per day.
Today, life is much brighter for Wright, who lives in Joliet and just celebrated his 37th birthday. He runs his own plumbing services business and was studying on a paralegal track but was thwarted because of a lack of finances for tuition.
He travels around, talking to at-risk youth in high schools about his life experiences. And as for the Cook County Juvenile Detention facility, he says he tries to not think about it.
But he does think of the kids under 13 who have been in detention.
“Right now, honestly I am trying to make the best of my life — and what’s left,'' he says, "Right now I am doing better than most of these kids are.”