Illinois, Home to Juvenile Justice, Behind Some States in New ‘Wave’ of Policy

school-to-prison pipeline

Changes to the juvenile justice system, as shown through history, are volatile. As of late, the trend seems to be supporting a rehabilitative model. While states like New Mexico and even President Barack Obama at the federal level, had been hard at work banning solitary confinement for juveniles and implementing other rehabilitative measures, Illinois has yet to completely embrace this view. Until, it appears, now.

Recent discussion of reform gives Illinois brownie points with advocates and experts alike, and addresses the flaws in the system that the Illinois population, and outsiders, have been calling out for years. However, it has taken time for the discussion too become reality, and some ideas, like dealing with race issues, are still playing catch up.

What has been done is an unlikely collaboration between feuding partners.

At a time of intense fighting between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic leader Michael Madigan, the two sides – so entrenched that a budget hasn’t been passed even for last year – cannot agree on new laws eliminating life sentences for minors convicted of murder, increasing attempts to place youth under 13 in a community service provider rather than putting them directly in the system and stopping detainment of youth who committed misdemeanors.

Just March 2, Rauner announced a bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Package, which worked to implement several of his Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform suggestions.

And, if these bickering parties can unite in passing bipartisan initiatives, it appears that the problems of yesteryear could soon be resolved by a new wave of social reform favoring rehabilitation. The current social movement, and pressures from activists, experts and private groups alike, have pressured the government into change.


The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation’s December report “Juvenile Justice in a Developmental Framework” analyzed legislation in all 50 states, and the District of Columbia, based on what the foundation, influenced by recent developmental research and policy area experts, believes to be “best practice.”

Compared to states like Pennsylvania and New Mexico, Illinois had adopted a relatively small number of these.

Of the five goals listed in the report, Illinois failed to achieve Goal 1: Minimize Contact with the System; achieved Goal 4: Adopt Developmentally Appropriate Confinement Practice; and partially achieved the other three goals: Goal 2: Keeping Youth in the Appropriate Justice System; Goal 3: Protecting Youth Inside the Courtroom; and Goal 5: Remove Obstacles from Reintegration with the Community.


Yet Illinois was lauded for policy changes not yet adopted by other states.

These were the now-effective law eliminating automatic transfers for 15-year-olds accused of any crime, including murder, and for older juveniles accused of anything less than the most serious crimes: first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, aggravated battery with a firearm, armed robbery with a firearm, or aggravated vehicular hijacking with a firearm.

As well, the state got kudos for legislation allowing registered sex offenders to petition to be removed from the registry.

Of all the policies outlined in the report, implementing a juvenile-specific competency statute was the second most adopted change across the country. Thirty states set separate standards for determining a juvenile defendant’s ability to participate in legal proceedings.

Illinois failed to adopt this policy, putting the state where juvenile justice was born in the United States, behind the curve on setting standards on how to judge if a juvenile is competent to face charges against them.

None of the new laws put into effect Jan.1 clearly aligned with best practice as laid out by the MacArthur Report.


The MacArthur Report argues that social climate and contexts are what drive the changes to the reform.

“Social reforms tend to be cyclical – they rise and fall and rise again in a new form, responsive to changing times and different contexts,” the report read. “It’s tempting to see the current wave of reforms as the last – a wave that will continue gathering momentum indefinitely. But social dynamics suggest that change is inevitable.”

Current social dynamics in Illinois include: dropping Chicago crime rates – homicides are roughly 100 percent over last year so far in 2016 – increased discussion of race relations fueled by police-involved shootings and rapid growth in the Hispanic population, which is expected to boil over in 2043 when, according to forecasts, Illinois will become a majority minority state.

These social dynamics have proven to have impact on state government, turning Illinois’ juvenile and adult judicial systems into more rehabilitative models, upending the former 1980s- and 1990s-style punitive models, which were fueled by crack wars and gang rivalries that saw homicide rates climb to peak in 1994 at nearly 1,000.

The high rates of slayings here and elsewhere prompted President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, to sign bills into law that are now widely blamed for the current mass incarceration state. (Clinton, in an interview recently, took some blame for the high rate of incarceration.)

The same month that the MacAthur Foundation released their 2015 report, Rauner’s Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform released Part One of their two-part “Final Report.” They had been tasked with releasing a series of recommendations on how to reduce the Illinois prison population by 25 percent by 2025.

In Part One of the Final Report, the Commissions presents 14 highly complex suggestions, most of which just set the groundwork for Part Two – not yet defined – and have been passed in Rauner’s recently released Criminal Justice Reform Package.

Still, the Commission promises to play catch-up, and address several recent hot-button issues including “the racial impact of sentencing, sentencing ranges, and sentencing enhancements,” in the yet-to-be announced Part Two.

Jobi Cates is the president and founder of Restore Justice Illinois, an organization dedicated to promoting state level criminal justice policy changes. Restore Justice Illinois recently set up a letter campaign to support yet to be passed House Bill 2470, a bill that would provide three judicial sentencing reviews over the lifetime of an adult inmate, who was ruled an extreme sentenced prior to turning 18.

Cates views the Commission as a sign of improvement in the system, a reassurance that her voice, and others like it, are being heard.

“Part Two promises to address many of the issues that we, as advocates for people serving extreme sentences, care about the most,” Cates said. “I think the jury is still out, although it’s extremely promising that there is so much focus and discussion around these issues via the commission”

The recent collaborations between parties, pleasing the activists and fulfilling the wishes of experts, leaves Cates feeling optimistic about the chances of the rehabilitative model prevailing.

“We need to be more than just punishment and vengeance,” she said. “We need to return to a time when we mean what we say—that we want to rehabilitate and ultimately release folks to be reunited with their families and communities.”

About Bianca Sanchez

Bianca Sanchez is a freshman at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and lives in Chicago.

View All Posts

Leave a Reply