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Columns

EYE ON ILLINOIS: Juvenile justice reform might have dramatic positive effects

Friday could prove to be a turning point in Illinois.

While most attention went to the state’s coronavirus response, the fate of youth sports and which schools will be able to open — clearly important issues — Gov. JB Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton conducted a Chicago news conference rolling out a four-year, three-phase plan to overhaul the Department of Juvenile Justice.

In broad strokes, the changes involve a shift away from prison for kids toward focus on intervention services and education delivered through smaller facilities that won’t take convicted kids so far away from home.

The administration used a fair amount number-based talking points, but two spoke the loudest.

One: Between 2010 and 2018, an average of 55 percent of those released from juvenile custody at some point came back.

Two: As often is the case, officials predict supplanting punishment with transformation also will save money in the long term for both the DJJ and the adult Illinois Department of Corrections.

The first is important because it defines a measurable goal. If this system is deployed as intended, and the recidivism rate drops accordingly, reformers can sell it as a success: fewer people in custody.

The cost savings projection needs a little more information to be fully useful, at least in terms of quantifying progress, but it’s an important selling point nonetheless. Some folks don’t care about the human cost of delivering a certain public service, but if you can convince them a new approach will use fewer tax dollars, it might be enough to close the deal.

“This model recognizes that the people we serve matter, and the people who are doing the serving matter,” said DJJ Director Heidi Mueller, according to Capitol News Illinois. “I’m especially excited about how this model will intentionally invest in victim services in communities hit hardest by violence, acknowledging that our current system does little to directly support victims, and that more than 90 percent of the kids in our system were victims before they were offenders.”

Efforts like this represent the hard work that can legitimately change the state’s criminal justice culture. These nuts and bolts tweaks have the power to do what slogans and social media arguments alone can never realize. Whether you think such reforms are the natural extension of vigorous debate or are possible only in spite of such rabble, the end result is an administration that has laid its marker and given everyone the metrics by which to hold it accountable.

After all, these are kids. They shouldn’t be in prison, especially if we consider the ways society fails them before they commit that first crime. Real change is possible, and this effort could transform Illinois.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at [ mailto:sholland@shawmedia.com ]sholland@shawmedia.com.

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