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Illinois Demonstration Project to Help Juvenile Offenders Make Successful Transition Back to Their Home Communities

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission on Tuesday announced the start of a demonstration project to reduce the recidivism and improve the outcomes of juvenile offenders.  The project will provide intensive reintegration services to help youth transition back into their home communities. 

The Commission will dedicate $1.5 million in federal funds to this demonstration project, which will concentrate on youth returning to neighborhoods on the West Side of Chicago and in Madison and St. Clair counties in the Metro East Illinois region of St. Louis.  These communities have historically had among the highest rates of youth incarceration in Illinois.

The Commission’s “Youth Reentry Improvement Report,” issued in December, found that more than half of the youth released from state prisons return to state prisons in three years or less, and the report made a series of recommendations to improve public safety by reversing that trend.  

“Our study concluded that the state has not done enough to prepare youth and families for the juveniles' return home, and too many youth are returned to expensive youth prisons due to technical parole violations,” said George W. Timberlake, who is Chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission and retired chief judge of the Second Judicial Circuit.  

“The parole system for juveniles was designed as a system to watch and punish adults violating terms of parole, and that’s simply not the best way to change behaviors of juveniles and keep them out of prison,” Timberlake continued.  “Both research and practice have progressed to the point that we have proven tools to reduce criminality.  Instead of waiting to catch a juvenile misbehaving, we need to invest in services that will prevent them from making more mistakes and help them lead lives free of crime.

“Without some help for youth and their families, it is just too easy for a juvenile leaving prison to fall right back into the same behaviors that resulted in the first trip to prison,” he said.  “They can break the cycle, but they need our help.”

The Commission has awarded a three-year grant totaling $1,022,838 to Youth Outreach Services (YOS) to provide the services in neighborhoods on the West Side of Chicago, and Children’s Home + Aid will receive $450,000 to deliver the services to youth returning to Madison and St. Clair counties over three years.  Both are non-profit agencies with long histories of serving youth and their families in these communities, and they were selected through a competitive process.

The Commission will evaluate the effectiveness of the demonstration project for possible statewide implementation.

In Chicago, YOS will help about 225 youth returning to the Austin, Humboldt Park and Lawndale neighborhoods.  YOS will connect youth to the services they need, including counseling, substance abuse treatment, family-focused therapy, vocational training, and educational support.  YOS is also developing a network of positive peers who will organize healthy and safe recreational activities. Youth who cannot be returned immediately to their homes may be eligible for Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, a proven model for reintegrating youth with their families. 

“Before they went to prison, something went horribly wrong in the lives of these teenagers, and their time in prison is not going to make it all better for them,” said Rick Velasquez, Executive Director of YOS.  “If they just get dropped back into their homes months or even years later, we can’t expect them to succeed without some guidance and counseling.  Helping them now will increase the odds they will succeed and grow into responsible adults, and it will make our neighborhoods safer.”

In Madison and St. Clair counties, Children’s Home + Aid will serve about 75 youth over the three years of the program.  The program will include two evidence based therapy programs, which have been used in many communities across the country and have been proven to reduce the chances a juvenile will return to a jail or prison. In addition to these family therapy programs, other services will include drug treatment, counseling for other mental health needs, anger management groups, and a program aimed at youth who have been traumatized as children.

“We will get to know these young people and their families very well,” said Linda White, Children’s Home + Aid Director of Youth and Family Counseling.  “We’re going to identify what they need to succeed, whether it be counseling, help kicking addictions or eliminating any other obstacles.  Changed behaviors can be difficult for these teens to achieve, but some extra guidance and encouragement sometimes makes all the difference in the world.”

Timberlake noted the demonstration project will complement the significant improvements the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) is making in support services to youth entering and leaving prison.  DJJ has begun a juvenile-centered Aftercare Specialist program in Cook County.  That program pairs juvenile coming into prison with a specialist who helps prepare the youth for eventual return home and assists the youth and family with the reentry to the community. 

The Commission and DJJ have recommended the Aftercare Specialist program be expanded statewide as a replacement for the adult-oriented parole system. 

"Each youth lost to a life of crime as an adult is a danger to our communities and an expensive burden for taxpayers," Timberlake said.  "But if our youth leaving prisons can stay on the track to success, our communities will be safer, recidivism costs will be reduced, and these youth will be able to lead better lives -- a benefit to all of us."

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About the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission

The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission is the federally mandated state advisory group to the Governor, the General Assembly and the Illinois Department of Human Services.  Appointed by the Governor, the 25 Commission members come from a variety of backgrounds in the juvenile justice field, including law enforcement, locally elected officials, mental health experts, non-profits, delinquency prevention experts and others. The Commission's “Youth Reentry Improvement Report” is available here:  http://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=58025