Racial disparities worsen as juvenile imprisonment declines in Illinois

Police officers obscure a banner that says "Fund Schools Not Prisons" at a demonstration outside of Illinois Youth Center, a juvenile detention center in Chicago, during a one-day teachers strike on April 1, 2016.

Photo by Michelle Kanaar

Police officers obscure a banner that says "Fund Schools Not Prisons" at a demonstration outside of Illinois Youth Center, a juvenile detention center in Chicago, during a one-day teachers strike on April 1, 2016.

Over the past decade, Illinois has incarcerated fewer young people as the state seeks to reform its juvenile justice system and provide youth with more options for rehabilitation instead of prison.

But the decline in young inmates has not led to significant savings in incarceration costs because the state hasn’t shut down prisons at a fast enough pace, according to a recent policy brief from Voices for Illinois Children, a research and advocacy group. In some facilities, in fact, more than half of beds are vacant–even though “putting youth in prisons is the most expensive and least effective way to respond to juvenile delinquency,” the policy brief states. “Illinois spends heavily on unnecessary prison facilities to incarcerate fewer and fewer youth each year.”

Recognizing the problem, the state has shut down three of its eight youth prisons in the past three years — including the closure this summer of its troubled Kewanee facility, which for years had been the subject of complaints of chronic understaffing and failure to provide sufficient education or health services. The facility is being converted into an adult prison to alleviate severe overcrowding statewide.

Yet during that same period, incarceration costs have risen dramatically, from $112,000 per juvenile in fiscal year 2014 to an estimated $172,000 in 2016, according to the brief. A decade ago, in the 2007 fiscal year, the cost was $71,000.

Meanwhile, the numbers for imprisoned youth have plummeted at a rapid clip, from an average of 1,438 on a daily basis in 2007 to 546 in 2016. By the end of August, the numbers were down even more, to just 393, according to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.

Despite the downward trend, stark racial disparities remain: Black youth are still far more likely to be incarcerated than white or Latino youth and make up nearly two-thirds of all juvenile inmates. That percentage has in fact increased since 2007, when black youth made up only 56 percent of inmates.

Charts: As the number of young inmates declines, costs are rising and the racial disparity remains stark: Two-thirds of juvenile inmates are black.

Sources: Data on costs are from Voices for Illinois Children. Data on race are from the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice; less than 1 percent of youth are other races.


Advocates in the juvenile justice community point out that the state could redirect the money saved by closing youth facilities into community-based programs that are less costly and more likely to keep young people from returning to prison. One example is Redeploy Illinois, which has a price tag of only about $6,000 per year for each young person and has been shown to reduce recidivism by double digits.

These programs typically go begging for funding. Last year, the state’s protracted budget impasse had a devastating impact on community-based initiatives and led several counties to cut back on services or cease operations altogether.

Community programs are also closer to home, an important point since only one of the remaining five youth facilities is in Cook County even though Cook juveniles are a disproportionate share of incarcerated youth.

Officials from the juvenile justice department expressed their support for Redeploy and other community-based models in a statement and said they’re an important component in a “robust continuum of treatment options” that both protect public safety and effectively use scarce resources.

Community-based models could also, in some cases, extend to young people who need more intensive intervention and might otherwise end up in a youth facility. One such model comes from Missouri, which has some structured, small group home settings that are closer to juvenile offenders’ homes so they can maintain their familial connections and reduce feelings of isolation.

“For those kids we aren’t able to divert from the system and who do end up in state custody, we need to use that time as effectively and rehabilitative as possible,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group. “This means increasing treatment and programming options, and really thinking about where kids are in relation to their families and communities.”

Illinois’ shift toward a model of incarceration as a last resort is based on research that recommends treating juvenile offenders differently than adults and providing more options for their rehabilitation. But there’s still much work to do, Vollen-Katz said.

The state should focus more resources in three areas: front-end, community-based programs that divert youth from prisons; more programs inside prison for those who do get locked up; and continued support after they’re released from prison. Support after being released includes more help getting back into school, applying for a driver’s license or preparing resumes.

“There’s certainly been movement in that direction as well,” Vollen-Katz said. “But we need to step that up.”