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Article updated: 7/12/2013 12:37 PM

Editorial: The urgent need for further reforms in juvenile justice

By

In a state where it's easy to dwell on the negatives, it's heartening when something goes right. A nationwide report released in June shows Illinois is a leading state in reducing youth incarceration rates. Then this week Gov. Pat Quinn signed two youth offender bills that will move the state further in the direction of a more effective approach to juvenile crime.

We'd like to end our editorial right there, taking pride in these recent accomplishments. But that's difficult to do when the good news is darkened by a report, also last month, that Illinois' juvenile justice system has one of the nation's worst rates of sexual abuse among inmates.

In the U.S. Department of Justice study, about 15 percent of kids in Illinois youth prisons reported being victims of sexual assault. Nationally that figure was less than 10 percent. Shortly after the news broke, state lawmakers set up a July 30 hearing to get answers from Department of Juvenile Justice Director Arthur Bishop.

We all need answers, and fast solutions.

The crisis brings to mind the outrage that followed suicides at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles and other prisons several years ago, as well as the delays in making those facilities safer. To his credit, Bishop has moved quickly in the past month, establishing an abuse reporting hotline and a youth advisory council to help protect young offenders. More changes will be needed.

The report highlights the need not only to protect children who commit crimes but also to work toward their rehabilitation. A century ago, Illinois became the first state to create a juvenile court because policymakers recognized that children who commit crimes need to be treated differently than adults. As more recent research confirms that, state officials are increasingly placing them in treatment programs that keep them in their home communities. The benefits to these children -- as well as taxpayers -- make this practice not just a good idea but an imperative.

In contrast to the federal study, a glowing report by the National Juvenile Justice Network calls Illinois a "Comeback State" for its 38 percent decrease in youth confinement in 10 years. It is one of nine states recognized for also embracing major changes to their systems like implementing research-based alternatives to prison, closing facilities and reducing incarceration for minor offenses.

Then earlier this year, two pieces of legislation passed with bipartisan support, giving these kids a chance to get on the right track while their brains are still maturing. The first puts 17-year-olds who commit felonies under the jurisdiction of juvenile court. The new law does not change the rules that move children to adult court when they face serious felony charges, usually those involving violence.

The second bill makes changes to a statewide initiative that will help it get started specifically in Cook County. The program, called Redeploy Illinois, offers financial incentives to counties that commit finding to alternatives to prison.

These measures aren't designed to coddle young people who break the law but rather to hold them accountable in age-appropriate ways. Sending them to prisons, where a criminal culture could easily envelop them, is counterproductive and -- as the study on sexual assaults shows -- often dangerous.

Community-based programs are designed to take children out of jail cells, and they are needed more urgently than ever. Back in 1899, Illinois led the nation in finding solutions to juvenile crime. Our state has much work to do to be a leader again.

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