Youth at IYC Harrisburg Should not be Subject to Outside Prosecution for Minor Offenses

In the past few years Illinois has made great strides in reforming the state’s juvenile justice system.  Agency leaders, legislators, stakeholders and advocates have worked together to integrate new research, evidenced-based best practices, and a renewed commitment to improve rehabilitative outcomes in our juvenile justice system.  Change has also come as a result of a settlement agreement in the ongoing litigation RJ v. Mueller, the lawsuit was brought against the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) in order to address the safety and welfare, mental health treatment and educational concerns for youth inside state run youth correctional facilities.  Policies and practices have been rewritten with a focus on rehabilitation of youth, disciplinary practices have been reassessed, and treatment and educational programs have been rigorously evaluated and monitored.  As a result of these and other efforts, DJJ now has fewer youth in custody than ever before in its 11-year history as a stand-alone department, fewer facilities to operate, an increased focus on mental health treatment, education and reentry planning, and has moved away from punitive models of behavior modification in favor of positive behavior reinforcement approaches.

While most juvenile justice experts and professionals agree that these steps have been important and impactful, the longer-term work of changing entrenched punitive perspectives and approaches remains a challenge.  An indicator of the difficulty in moving the juvenile justice system towards a more rehabilitative model that emphasizes individual growth and change is what is happening with shocking and increased frequency to youth in state custody at Illinois Youth Center Harrisburg (IYC Harrisburg).

IYC Harrisburg is designated by DJJ as a male secure medium-security level two facility in Southern Illinois, housing young men from all over the state. The John Howard Association (JHA) is deeply troubled by reports of youth there being prosecuted on new charges based on reckless, minor misconduct, such as pushing, shoving or grabbing that results in no injury or only superficial injuries. Up until recently, most youth-on-youth fights, which legally can be classified as a battery or assault, would be handled internally by facility staff through the use of the facilities’ disciplinary system, the changing of which may be at the root of these prosecutions for relatively inconsequential behavior.  Prior to the last year and half, if the level of violence or injury was extreme and out of the norm, DJJ would go to the specific facility’s local state’s attorney’s office in order to have new charges brought against the perpetrator of the violence or injury.  This was true whether a youth assaulted staff or another youth, understanding that pushing, grabbing, or spitting at a person can be considered an assault under the law, the cases usually referred to local authorities for prosecution were only those where the youth’s behavior was exceedingly violent, injurious, premeditated or hazardous.  Anecdotally, based on outside observation and limited available information, in the past several years prosecutions referred to local authorities by the Department have ranged from a couple to a few on an annual basis.

According to a motion filed yesterday by the ACLU, plaintiffs’ counsel in the RJ litigation, based on information obtained from DJJ, over 40 charges have been brought against youth in custody at IYC Harrisburg in a 14-month period, January 2016 through March of 2017.  Few if any of these charges were brought to the attention of local prosecutors by DJJ. Rather, these charges were filed based on staff members who work at IYC Harrisburg individually going to local law enforcement and bringing formal complaints as victims and complaining witnesses.  The incidents alleged are mostly minor, involving no serious injuries, and are of the kind that are typically handled by staff through DJJ’s internal disciplinary system.  This is no longer the case, as IYC Harrisburg staff seem to circumvent internal disciplinary mechanisms in favor of bringing formal criminal charges against youth for minor incidents. Illustrative of this disturbing trend, is the case of a young man who was charged and convicted for spitting on a staff person at IYC Harrisburg and received a sentence of six years in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). This kind of excessive punishment is ruinous for young lives. It also defies basic notions of proportionality, fair treatment, justice and DJJ’s stated mission and goal of rehabilitating youth in its custody. 

Correctional staff at IYC Harrisburg have stated that the new disciplinary policies adopted pursuant to the settlement agreement in the RJ litigation leave them without effective tools or consequences to control youth behavior.  Specifically, staff object to elimination of extended confinement for youth.  However, while staff report that the facility is chaotic, youth behavior is out of control, and that they do not have any recourse to manage youth conduct, information and standardized data collected system wide through the Performance Based Standards system (PbS), tells a different story.   Measured against facilities throughout the field and jurisdiction the data shows that assaults at Harrisburg are below average, as are staff concerns about personal safety, but there is a documented increase in the use of confinement compared to other facilities despite the PbS reports showing that assault levels and safety concerns by staff are lower than the field and jurisdictional averages.  If staff at Harrisburg feel unsafe and that the facility is dysfunctional, these are serious issues and worthy of attention. However, these issues should be addressed by DJJ, not the Saline County courts.  DJJ has a responsibility to create policies and institute practices that maintain the safety of youth and staff.  If this is not happening, then further modifications to policy, training, or other changes are needed with feedback and collaboration from staff.

IYC Harrisburg must find a way to manage youth behavior inside the facility, with only the most egregious, injurious conduct being referred to local law enforcement and prosecutors.  There must be an understanding of and fidelity to new disciplinary reforms, with buy in and training for staff on new ways of managing youth behavior. Adherence to these policies should be monitored and evaluated for compliance.   At a minimum, JHA agrees with the ACLU that a plan is needed to respond to this issue, and that no youth should be sent to IYC Harrisburg until this issue is resolved.

At issue here, aside from the apparent backlash against juvenile justice reform efforts, are the lives of young people being devastated by new criminal prosecutions, many ending in adult criminal convictions leading to excessive prison sentences in IDOC.  Court observers have noted a lack of due process and procedural integrity in the youths’ cases.  The injustice of unwarranted criminal prosecutions, inadequate legal proceedings and excessively punitive resolutions in these cases has been documented by lawyers, advocates and stakeholders and must stop immediately.  Youth lives must not be sacrificed to political gamesmanship and staff concerns must be addressed.  Safety and security of staff and youth inside the facility is paramount, and can be achieved short of draconian punishments and responses.  DJJ must find a way to achieve this in a fair, humane, and just way.


For more information contact:

Jennifer Vollen-Katz
Executive Director
John Howard Association, (312)291-9555

Allie Kelly2017