NORMAL — Despite reforms, juveniles who find themselves on the wrong side of the law in Illinois still face a dangerous road in a legal system with few resources to address the problems that brought them to the police station, an advocate for juvenile justice reform told an audience Monday at Illinois State University.
The system designed to resolve conflicts youth have with the law is "profoundly unjust," said Elizabeth Clarke, a lawyer and founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a non-profit advocacy group.
Clarke addressed an audience of about 300 students of the ISU School of Social Work and professionals who work with youth for a day-long event marking Social Work Day.
Major changes in Illinois law this year were long overdue and fall short of the reforms needed to keep most young offenders in community programs instead of behind bars, said Clarke.
Judges are no longer required to automatically transfer serious cases involving a juvenile to adult court and children younger than 13 may be placed in community programs rather than a detenction facility under the revised laws.
Illinois also has steadily reduced its juvenile offender prison population, going from about 1,700 in 2004 to 400 currently, said Clarke. She praised a recent proposal by Gov. Bruce Rauner to close the Youth Training Center at Kewanee.
In McLean County, the number of pending cases involving delinquent minors showed a slight decrease at the close of 2015, at 441 cases compared to 444 the previous year, according to the circuit clerk's office.
Minority youth suffer the same overrepresentation in prison as their adult counterparts, said Clarke, noting that black youth made up 81 percent of the recent Cook County juvenile prison population, with 17 percent Hispanic and two percent white.
In 1940, a black high school dropout had a 15 percent likelihood of spending a year or more in jail. By the late 1970s, that same man's chances of going to jail had risen to 68 percent, said Clarke.
"Within one generation, it became a normative experience to go to prison. It's unacceptable," Clarke told the audience meeting at Bone Student Center.
The Chicago-based Juvenile Justice Initiative supports a proposal in Illinois to require that juveniles in police custody have a lawyer with them during questioning. Police must make a reasonable attempt to contact a child's parents under existing law.
The concept of restorative justice that allows a victim and perpetrator to meet and settle their dispute without a long court battle could be a positive addition to the criminal justice system, said Clarke.
"Everybody gets skills out of this. They learn how to resolve conflict," said Clarke.