New Study Outlines Ways to Better Help Youths in Juvenile Justice System

Photo by Richard Ross

Photo above is by photographer Richard Ross, whose Juvenile in Justice documentary collection was exhibited at a Roosevelt University Gage Gallery show co-sponsored by the Mansfield Institute in 2012.

CHICAGO–(ENEWSPF)–November 24, 2014. The Cook County Juvenile Justice system needs to get smarter about the way it handles adjudication of young people, a new study by Roosevelt University and the Adler School of Psychology shows.

The best way to help youth who have cases pending in the Cook County Juvenile Court system is to rule out detaining them.  Instead, these kids should be sent to community-based programs, the study on the juvenile court’s role in improving kids’ outcomes shows.

Youth caught up in the system are more likely to succeed if they are referred to community programs with a restorative-justice component and staff that can provide support, guidance and mentorship, according to the study conducted by Roosevelt University’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation and the Adler School of Professional Psychology’s Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice.

Researchers from the two institutes interviewed more than 200 stakeholders in the Cook County Juvenile Court system in an attempt to find ways to fix a broken system.  Cook County has the highest rate of recidivism out of 10 counties in the state, and nearly nine out of every 10 kids who spend time in Illinois youth prisons end up going back to prison within three years of their release, according to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.

Often removed for the first time from their homes and school, these youth tend to fair poorly in terms of staying on track to complete education, enter the workforce and lead successful lives, according to the just-published Juvenile Justice Needs Assessment Executive Summary, which outlines findings and recommendations for improving the Cook County Juvenile Justice system.

“There needs to be a change in how we handle youth entering the juvenile justice system,” said Laynetta Haynes, who was executive director of Cook County Justice for Children when it commissioned the study, which includes surveys, interviews and focus groups. Titled “What can the Juvenile Court do to improve its ability to help our youth?” the full report, including responses from 200 stakeholders, will be available in mid-December.

“Instead of being detained from the get-go in a system that isn’t working, these youth ought to be diverted into alternative programs that can help them reconnect with their communities, education and families,” said Turner, who today is the new executive director of the Cook County Justice Advisory Council, which advises Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on criminal and juvenile justice reform efforts and public-safety policy development.

Study participants pointed to a number of challenges that must be addressed in order to keep kids from being unnecessarily detained. Among them:

• Communication, coordination, accountability and relationship building within Cook County’s juvenile justice system can align and strengthen services and understanding of available services and proceedings for all parties.

• Court personnel, such as judges and lawyers, educating parents/families about the juvenile justice proceedings, choices and consequences of these choices creates a greater chance that young people will take advantage of alternatives to detention.

• Court-involved youth who are diverted into community programs should be able to receive services that kids who are detained can access.  This creates a greater incentive to stay in community, which is more effective and economical.

• Knowledge about and funding for diversion and community-based alternatives need to be increased in order to address the current hesitancy by the juvenile court to refer youths into alternative programs.

“In our discussions with youth and their families who have been involved with the juvenile justice system, we find referral to diversion and community programs leads to positive outcomes for youth,” said Nancy Michaels, associate director of Roosevelt’s Mansfield Institute.

Besides Michaels, the research team included Tressa Greer and Cecily Crowson, former Roosevelt University students who graduated in May, as well as two AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers at the Mansfield Institute, Callie Skwiat and Tim Crawford. Researchers from the Adler School Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice included Elena Quintana, executive director, and Tina Johnson, justice fellow.

“A common theme in the research was that it was an individual or a group of people in a community alternative setting that made the difference, giving young people and their families hope, trust and direction that led to their reintegration into community and society,” said Michaels.

“We now know that our current justice policies and systems do not work, throwing good money after bad practices,” Quintana said. “Instead of investing in programs and interventions that positively educate youth and transform their lives, the current system is taking public money and creating thousands of future inmates in Illinois jails and prisons. As a society, we know better, and it serves everyone for us to do better,” she said.

The study also recommends a number of policy changes:

• Provide education to all juvenile justice gatekeepers and stakeholders about the importance of promoting positive, neurobiological development for youth exposed to trauma.

• Create a common goal for the juvenile justice system in which youth would remain in their community, whenever possible.

• Make sure alternatives to detention are well known to juvenile judges, and that the effectiveness of these alternatives is understood.

• Shift emphasis and investment of resources from government juvenile justice side to community service providers working with youth, their families and caretakers.

• Adopt professional standards for care, contact and practice for alternative diversion programs.

• Increase funding for these programs, giving them resources for preventative and restorative programming.

• Identify and staff key bridge builders within the juvenile justice system who can move between gatekeepers and programs in order to assure that positive development for youth is central to decision making.

For more information on the study, and/or to receive a copy of the executive summary, contact Roosevelt’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation at 312-341-2150 or the Adler School’s Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice at 312-662-4024 or [email protected]