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DECATUR — Attorneys, lawmakers, professors, Decatur law enforcement officers and policy advocates on Thursday explored alternatives to juvenile detention and ways to reduce youth incarceration in a forum at Richland Community College.

The event was held with the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy group launched in Illinois in 2000. President Elizabeth Clarke presented a variety of recommendations to reduce the use of youth detention, which she said can have lasting negative effects. Cook County ended incarceration for juveniles under 13 just over a year ago, Clarke said.

"We're really trying to learn more about what is needed in this part of the state to reduce the use of detention," she said.

Males make up 79% of incarcerated juveniles in Central Illinois, with half of the incarcerated juveniles being age 16 or 17, according to a presentation from Shawn Freeman, research program coordinator for the Center for Prevention and Development in the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Freeman said 57% of incarcerated juveniles in Central Illinois are black. Black male youth are eight times more likely to be detained than white male youth.

In Central Illinois, 27% of juveniles in detention centers are locked up for property crimes, Freeman said. Four out of the top five counties in the state that admit youth into detention centers are located in Central Illinois.

James Wrigley, a juvenile detective with the Decatur Police Department, said it takes a very serious crime for a juvenile to be detained.

Macon County closed its juvenile facility, Bivens-Whitten Juvenile Detention Center, on June 1, 2002. Detained youths were sent to Sangamon County at the time, but now are sent to Peoria County Juvenile Detention Center.

Clarke presented a number of recommendations on behalf of the organization, which is advocating for the minimum age of detention be raised to 14 years old across the state. Some of these included:

  • Juvenile judges and law enforcement should exhaust all less restrictive alternatives before putting a youth in a juvenile detention center.
  • A data-focused plan should be used statewide to address disparities, which should include education, race and geographical location in order to ensure youths are treated equally.
  • Trained and resourced lawyers should be available across the state on the weekends to represent youth during detention review hearings.
  • There should be public and independent oversight of juvenile detention through timely and public reporting of the use of detention, through annual policies.
  • There should be required reporting and analysis of the use, impact and cost benefit of electronic monitoring of children.

Wrigley said the Decatur Police Department already does electronic monitoring, but it usually happens after the juvenile is detained and the judge puts him or her on restrictions.

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Clarke said the state is investing money in detention by subsidizing detention center staff, which is substantial for the county. "That's unfortunately an incentive to keep a detention center going to keep those jobs," she said.

Shifting that somehow so alternatives could become available and employees could keep their jobs would be helpful, she said.

Amy Campanelli, a Cook County public defender, said law enforcement officers have to follow the law, but there is a lot of discretion when it comes to deciding whether or not to send a child to court or to an alternative.

She said police have the discretion ask to themselves: "Am I going to send this child to court in this drug case, or am I going to find some way to get that child into treatment?" Campanelli said. "Am I going to use a social service agency because this child is having a mental health breakdown? Am I going to reach out to the child's family? Do I have a mental health group I can work with to help me do the job I can do — thinking outside the box of 'lock them up'"

She said that doesn't need to happen anymore, and it doesn't work."A child spending two weeks in detention is going to forever harm that child," Campanelli said.

In Macon County, juveniles are out of the detention center the next day with the exception of weekends, Wrigley said. He said the local Youth Advocate Program is excellent, responsive and they have a shelter as well.

"It takes a lot for a kid to get detained in Macon County , and when they are detained, they're not detained for very long whatsoever. It has to be a major, major offense for them to go over the 30 days," he said.

Keyria Rodgers, director of criminal justice at Millikin University, said a recent grant will create a coordinating council in Macon County. The goal is to reduce juvenile detention, but also look at reducing adult jail and prison populations as well, she said.

"This is really not just looking at one or two aspects of juvenile justice," Rodgers said. "We're talking the entire logic of governance here and actually redesigning how we govern our juvenile justice systems here."\

Rodgers said the council's fiscal agent is the Regional Office of Education, and there are government services such as the State's Attorney's Office, law enforcement agencies, probation and courts and Millikin University's Teen Justice Department. Agencies to help not only the children, but parents also are involved, such as elder abuse services, community-based agencies, medical services, research teams, Richland Community College, faith-based organization and mental health organizations, she said.

Rodgers said all juvenile cases should not be treated the same. There are also ways to see what programs are missing, what works and ways to be as efficient as possible with the money from private donations, grants and community donations, she said.

The Rev. Courtney Carson, director of director of essential skills and community relations at Richland Community College, also spoke during the forum about introducing a trauma-informed approach to education to high school students to lead them on the path to graduation. The method identifies Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and the next step is to move the approach to the middle school level, he said.

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Contact Kennedy Nolen at (217) 421-6985. Follow her on Twitter: @KNolenWrites

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