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Illinois Summit Examines Ways to Help Youth Leaving Prison Succeed and End the Cycle of Prison Recidivism

CHICAGO -- Nearly 100 youth service providers and justice reform advocates participated in a daylong summit discussing how to help move Illinois from a youth parole system that is punitive in nature to one giving priority to rehabilitation of young people leaving prison.

The summit was co-sponsored by the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School and the Juvenile Justice Initiative (JJI), an Illinois coalition of reform advocates.

“Young people in Illinois are released from incarceration in state juvenile facilities into a system that was designed to supervise adults, with few statutory guidelines, standards, oversight or transparency,” said Elizabeth Clarke, President of JJI. “Outcomes of juveniles in an adult parole system are dismayingly bad, with half the youth re-incarcerated for parole violations – many of them relatively minor like violating curfew or missing a counseling session.

“Public safety is best served by a system of reentry designed to assist youth as they move from confinement back to their home and community and not an adult parole model where a youth's misstep interrupts the rehabilitation and returns the youth to prison,” Clarke said. 

The idea for the summit grew out of several years of efforts to limit the amount of time youth are exposed to the penalty of re-incarceration for a technical parole violation, according to Clarke, a 2008 recipient of a Models for Change Champion for Change award.

“A good deal of work has been done already to change juvenile parole in Illinois, including the hiring and training of aftercare specialists to work directly with youth in Cook County and plans to expand that statewide,” Clarke said.  “This is a good time to bring advocates together to learn what all is happening and build momentum for more improvements.”

Discussions at the summit explored the role of parole and aftercare when young people return to their communities after being incarcerated.  

Following a keynote by Bart Lubow, Director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, speakers and participants noted that traditional parole models of surveillance, sanctions and reincarceration have not proven effective in addressing the factors that lead to the youth’s incarceration, nor in improving access to the education, housing, employment, substance abuse treatment or other support that could keep a youth from returning to prison.  

Other speakers described unrealistic terms and conditions of juvenile parole and the struggles of young people to meet those standards or face reincarceration over a four- to five-year parole term, until they age out at 21.  

Community providers described the needs of youth returning from prison and the type of educational, housing, jobs and family support that could improve the outcomes of young people and enhance community safety -- at lower costs than an incarceration model.  

All participants were given an opportunity to provide their viewpoint through breakout sessions.   Clarke said a report on the summit will be distributed to all participants and to key stakeholders in Illinois.  

The idea for the summit grew out of work of JJI, a Models for Change grantee, and others seeking ways to help youth leaving prison to stay out of prison and improve their lives and communities.

The 2011 “Youth Reentry Improvement Report,” a study of the effectiveness of Illinois’ system of reintegrating juvenile offenders into their home communities, helped advance a better understanding of the system’s deficiencies and recommendations to improve preparation of youth and their families for the return home, as well as linking youth to needed services in their communities.  The full report issued by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, can be found here.

In addition, the Commission, which is the Illinois state advisory group to the Governor and General Assembly, recently announced $1.5 million in funding of a three-year demonstration project to reduce recidivism of young offenders. 

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Models for Change is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, website operated by Justice Policy Institute.