The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The Illinois Juvenile Justice System Faces COVID-19

From isolation to disrupted educations, the pandemic deeply affected youth entangled in Illinois’s juvenile justice system, and underlined some of the system’s contradictions.
Cook Countys Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, where children ages 10-21 are heeld before trial.
Circuit Court of Cook County
Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, where children ages 10-21 are heeld before trial.

This is the third article in The Maroon’s series on how the pandemic has affected youth involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. The last two articles focused on the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), while this article discusses how the pandemic has disrupted the lives of youth in the state’s juvenile jails and prisons. Many of the most vulnerable children in Illinois come into contact with both systems. Approximately one third of the children involved in the child welfare system come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

The pandemic has exacerbated systemic issues in Illinois’s juvenile justice system, ranging from the overuse of pretrial detention to the disruption of already struggling education programs. Meanwhile, it has also exposed juveniles to new challenges, including infection and isolation. Despite the hardship over the last year, some advocates are optimistic that the pandemic may have built momentum for reform. 

Early in the pandemic, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) moved quickly to release children and teenagers from detention across the state. In February 2020, there were 219 youth in IDJJ youth prisons. Two months later, only 120 youth remained. A total of 38 youth in the IDJJ system have contracted COVID-19 to date—approximately one in four. As of February 2021, 136 youth are in the IDJJ system, which remains significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels. 

“They’ve shown that that’s a sustainable number,” said Luis Klein, who works with the Juvenile Justice Initiative (JJI). JJI is a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of youth involved with the criminal justice system in Illinois. Advocates can now point to the pandemic months as evidence that the population of the state’s juvenile prisons can stay low. 

He explained that IDJJ has more flexibility in sentencing than other divisions of the Illinois criminal legal system. In Illinois, juveniles are not given a finite sentence when they are sent to prison. Instead, IDJJ retains the option to release juveniles if it decides that they no longer need to be in an institutional setting and that parole is in their and their community's best interest. However, in particularly serious cases, juveniles can be tried as adults. In those cases, they do not have the benefit of indeterminate sentencing, and IDJJ does not have discretion over how much time they serve. 

“When a juvenile is sentenced to effectively juvenile prison, they’re sent on an indeterminate sentence, so it’s up to the discretion of the director of IDJJ, who sets your release,” Klein explained. “And the current director [Heidi Mueller] really made an effort to get as many kids out as she possibly could.” 

The pandemic accelerated an ongoing effort to reform IDJJ. The population of incarcerated juveniles has been declining steadily in recent years. Six years ago, there were 700 juveniles in the IDJJ system. Over the last 15 years, the agency has responded to the growing nationwide consensus that children and teenagers should not be held in adult prisons because juvenile detention is both expensive and ineffective at rehabilitating youth and improving public safety. IDJJ used its discretionary power to release many juveniles at the beginning of the pandemic. Incarceration facilities across Illinois housed a daily average of 218 juveniles in February 2020. By April 2020, that number had already fallen to just above 135—approximately a 38 percent decrease in just two months. 

Amy Williams works with the nonprofit New Life Centers of Chicagoland and manages youth programming at the Illinois Youth Center (IYC) in St. Charles, located about 40 miles west of Chicago. Many of the teenagers with whom she works were able to leave prison early and escape the risk of infection because IDJJ prioritized getting as many youth out as possible. 

“If you see a kid who is doing well, who’s participating in all the programs and not getting into any trouble, and then here comes COVID, then they would make for a good case to say, ‘Well, he’s doing well, so why don’t we just release him early?’” Williams explained. “There were several cases that were just like, ‘He’s only here to serve three months, he’s doing well, [so] let’s cut his time in half. He earned it in good time.’” 

Kate Burdick is a senior attorney with the Juvenile Law Center. She advocates for improving the outcomes and education of youth involved with the criminal legal and child welfare systems.  

“We’re hoping that even if [or] when the pandemic resolves, we can continue to capitalize on the gains that have been made in reducing the population to show you'’ve never needed to be in these places,” Burdick said. “We want that momentum to continue and not to be a return to, ‘Okay, well, now everybody’s vaccinated, so let’s incarcerate more kids.’” 

Illinois is in the middle of an overhaul of its juvenile justice system. Last July, Governor J. B. Pritzker announced that IDJJ was transitioning to a close-to-home model that will keep incarcerated youth in small, group homes near their communities rather than concentrate them in youth prisons where their friends and families struggle to visit them. Illinois youth centers such as St. Charles, where Williams works, should be closed within the next few years. 

“IDJJ currently has one facility in the city of Chicago—they don’t even own it, they rent it—and it used to be a warehouse. It is totally inappropriate to house youths there, so that part is very much transformative,” Klein said. 

Some activists have criticized IDJJ for building a new youth center in Lincoln because they were concerned that IDJJ was effectively expanding its former model instead of embracing reform. Klein, though, was inclined to trust the current administrators of IDJJ.  

“I want to give IDJJ the benefit of the doubt because they have earned the benefit of the doubt,” he said. 

Still, he said that he would keep watching to make sure that the state does not end up adding more prison beds than it takes away. 

“When a government builds a prison, there’s an incentive to put people in it,” he explained. 

Juveniles who are charged and detained do not immediately receive their sentences. Instead, they go to detention centers, which are effectively juvenile jails, for their pretrial detention. “Illinois Youth Centers,” the state’s name for juvenile prisons, are only home to youth under 21 who have received their sentences and who are serving their time. Unlike those in prison, youth in juvenile jails cannot earn early release through good behavior. IDJJ does not have jurisdiction over the state’s jails; instead, they are part of the court system. For example, the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC), a jail for children between 10 and 16, is part of the Circuit Court of Cook County. 

“On pretrial, I really wish I could say that we’ve seen the same efforts [as in youth prisons]. We have not. There was not a decline in the population,” Klein said. 

How Coronavirus Disrupted Illinois Juvenile Detention Centers 

The first wave of the pandemic caught the Cook County court system off guard. As it scrambled to establish remote options, Cook County suspended hearings for juveniles. Then, on April 7, 2020, the Illinois Supreme Court suspended the right to a speedy trial. Normally, juveniles cannot be held in jail for more than 30 days without a trial. But they lost that right during the pandemic, even if they were being held for months for a minor crime for which they had not been tried. Arrests did not stop during the pandemic. There was a steady flow into pretrial facilities such as the JTDC in Chicago even though the population of youth prisons, which hold juveniles who have already been convicted, had dramatically decreased. 

“If in your initial detention hearing you weren’t released, you were stuck,” Klein said. 

Despite a drop in crime early in the pandemic, the population of Illinois’s youth jails remained relatively steady. In July, an average of more than 450 youths  were in pretrial detention, a little less than 10 percent lower than the average from the year before. Meanwhile, the number of monthly admissions to Illinois youth jails decreased by more than 36 percent between July 2019 and July 2020 because of a drop in arrests. July 2020 was the last month when each court district fully reported its data. 

However, the pandemic did indirectly open more opportunities for diversion for juveniles who were arrested. “Diversion” describes an intervention that removes juveniles from formal criminal processing and instead focuses on community-based alternatives to detaining or convicting them. Usually, diversion is only readily available to juveniles arrested for misdemeanors. Dana Weiner is a senior policy fellow at Chapin Hall, the University of Chicago research center that focuses on children’s issues and welfare. She explained that the courts were under pressure to move juveniles out of detention centers quickly after the temporary order that suspended the right to a speedy trial trial expired. The courts were still backed up because of the pandemic, so they looked for ways to offer diversion to more juveniles. 

“They created the opportunity to offer diversion to kids with other more serious charges, so kids who have gun charges or vehicular theft or other things that are more serious than misdemeanors. And so we’re measuring that and we’ll hopefully accumulate evidence that can inform the field,” Weiner said. 

Although her and her colleagues’ research is still in progress, she described the increased opportunities for diversion as a “silver lining” of the pandemic. 

Despite increased diversion efforts, the backlog in the courts kept many juveniles in jail during the pandemic. An analysis conducted by Klein and his colleague at JJI showed that four times as many juveniles were awaiting trial in youth jails as there were juveniles in prison. He explained that many of the children in pretrial detention could not be sent to prison even if they were found guilty. Illinois has banned the incarceration of juveniles for low-level misdemeanors, but they can still be arrested prior to trial. Moreover, no child under 13 can be sent to a youth prison, but children as young as 10 can be sent to a youth jail. In January and February 2021, one 10-year-old and one 12-year-old had been detained in the state’s detention centers. 

“Children should not be locked up before trial if they can’t be imprisoned after trial” has become a refrain in Klein’s advocacy’s work. 

The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission (IJJC) monitors the juvenile justice system in the state and advises the governor, the state legislature, and the Illinois Department of Human Services.  In February 2021, it released a report on the detention of youth under 13. 

“In the first half of 2020—in the midst of a pandemic—there were 39 detention admissions of 10–-12 year old children in Illinois,” the report said. 

A wide racial disparity plagues every part of the state’s criminal justice system. In the general population of IDJJ, nearly 67 percent of the juveniles are Black. Among children between ten10 and 12, the disparity is even more extreme. In 2019, more than 70 percent of the children between 10 and 12 who were detained were Black, even though only 15 percent of the state’s youth population is Black. The IJJC report explained that the inequity corresponds to the widespread “adultification” of Black children, in which they are perceived as less “innocent” and therefore more deserving of punishment than their white peers. 

“Racial inequality is a chronic part of every part of the criminal legal system,” Klein said. “In that small population—even worse. It somehow manages to be worse.” 

Klein is lobbying lawmakers to pass bills in the Illinois General Assembly to make the detention of youth under 13 illegal. Although a similar bill has been proposed in past years, he is optimistic that there may finally be enough momentum behind the issue to pass a bill this year. 

“There’s a sense that the status quo isn’t working, that locking up kids that young doesn’t make sense. And it’s never made sense, especially given that the minimum age for detention to DJJ is 13,” he said. 

Klein is one of many advocates working to improve the conditions of youth involved with the criminal legal system. Paul Pearson, who runs the DuSable County Community Coalition, advocates on behalf of youth involved with the criminal legal and child welfare systems. Before the pandemic, he managed a class for youth at the JTDC, but he was not able to go inside the facility after restrictions were put in place to protect youth from infection. He struggled to find information about how youth inside the JTDC were being treated, and he has been gathering whatever information he can to raise awareness about the issues at the JTDC. 

Pearson grew up in housing projects on the South Side of Chicago and saw firsthand the ongoing damage that youth incarceration had on his friends. 

“Being raised there, I saw a lot of youth offenders—peers, friends, acquaintances, people that I had known to be normal kids,” he said. “Quite a few of them were arrested and detained for things that I later learned were very trivial.” 

Pearson has joined parents and other advocates in socially distanced rallies outside of the JTDC. “We’ve seen parents who come around [to] get access to the young people, and they were turned away,” he said, describing how children at the JTDC were indefinitely cut off from their families. 

He emphasized that only a handful of the children at the JTDC are subject to automatic sentencing, which is a requirement for serious violent crime charges. “[Most children] are pending charges. This is a holding facility. This is not a facility for youth who have long term issues or concerns,” Pearson said. 

Tim Evans, the chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, had organized the releases of many detainees at Cook County Jail, the adult version of the JTDC. He issued an emergency order allowing other divisions of the circuit court to hear emergency cases. Some judges allowed for a blanket emergency provision that accelerated releases. But Cook County judge Michael Toomin, presiding over the juvenile division, opted to personally decide whether each case warranted an emergency hearing, resulting in slower processing and a slower rate of release. Advocates tried to remove Toomin, and the Cook County Democrats withheld its support from his reelection campaign. However, his supporters argued that he was an experienced judge interpreting the law who was the target of a politicized attack. 

When Safety Concerns Disrupt Education  

When youth become involved in the criminal legal system, they often face setbacks in their education, an issue which the pandemic has exacerbated. Burdick explained that when children do not have personalized classes that give them room to ask questions and engage in real time with teachers, youth are much more likely to fall behind. 

St. Charles resumed much of its in-person programming during the fall and winter, although Williams said that some older youth who had been taking college courses had to temporarily suspend their studies. Meanwhile, at the JTDC, the Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School, a specialized school affiliated with Chicago Public Schools, runs the coursework. Last spring, the school started distributing instructional packets and coordinating Zoom meetings in lieu of in-person class time. 

Jessica Gingold is a staff attorney with Equip for Equality, a nonprofit that gives legal aid to people with disabilities in Illinois. She works in the Special Education Clinic and with court-involved youth. 

In November 2020, Equip for Equality, Legal Aid Chicago (LAC), and the Cook County Public Defender’s office filed a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). They claimed that youths did not have enough access to special education services. Nearly 70 percent of the youth involved with the justice system nationwide have a disability. 49 percent of the children at the JTDC need Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), specialized education plans that help make sure that their particular needs are met. State law requires that initial special education evaluations are conducted within the first 60 days of receiving parental consent for the evaluation. In response to the complaint, the board initiated an investigation. 

“Basically, we discovered, because of some of our clients and then also [through] talking to the public defender and talking to LAC, that effectively youth in the detention center in Cook County who had IEPs were not really having their special education needs met because of the pandemic,” she explained. “So if you have a kid who has an IEP and requires individualized instruction or related services, they’re essentially not getting [that] right now at JTDC.” 

On April 14, Equip for Equality received a heavily redacted copy of the completed investigation. The board’s investigation revealed that youth only received education packets while they quarantined for the first 10 days of their stay in the JTDC. The board also found that children in behavioral pods were unable to access any synchronous education and were given packets instead. 

After the initial quarantine, detained children enroll at the Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School. The school district’s statements were included in the investigation and gave more insight into how education was being conducted. No spokesperson was listed, and the statements were attributed to “the district.” The school district explained the many challenges it faces at the JTDC: Many children have a history of truancy; approximately 50 percent of the students are enrolled in “out-of-compliance” IEPs because of absences from their home school; and many others have changed schools multiple times. Moreover, children are only ever at the JTDC temporarily. Although the district insisted that all legally required reevaluations were conducted on time, it was unable to supply records to confirm this during the audit. 

The district also pointed to the restrictions put on education services by the JTDC to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and maintain security. Children received all instruction in their pods because convening in Nancy B. Jefferson’s classrooms would increase the risk of infection. The JTDC does not group students according to their education needs, but rather based on security concerns, age, and gender. The JTDC considers headphones and laptops contraband, so the school cannot distribute them to students. The JTDC also considers pencils to be dangerous, and controls their use. 

Working within these limitations, the district explained that Nancy B. Jefferson conducts remote education through one laptop connected to a television for each pod of 12 to 14 students. A general education and a special education teacher work together to manage three hours of synchronous instruction each day. Then, they give each student individualized instructional packets. The board concluded that students were not receiving the services outside the general education system that they are legally obligated to receive. Moreover, children with emotional disorders were not receiving one-on-one time with social workers. The board emphasized the extenuating circumstances and also established a “corrective action” plan that was redacted from the report.

“There’s a bit of pointing fingers at each other, of ‘Whose fault is it?’” Gingold said, characterizing the relationship between administrators of the JTDC and Nancy B. Jefferson. 

Burdick is not familiar with the education programming at any particular facility in Chicago, but her work on education issues has given her insight on the issue nationwide. According to her, the JTDC’s setbacks during the pandemic are not atypical. 

“We know that education and juvenile justice facilities were typically pretty subpar before the pandemic. There were some places [which] were trying hard and doing some good work, but on the whole, the outcomes were pretty devastating,” Burdick said. 

The pandemic made these preexisting issues that much worse, but Burdick emphasized that youth often defy expectations. “Children are resilient, and everyone wants to learn and has the capacity to learn.” That said, she added, “The fact that they have been denied education and meaningful education is definitely a problem.”[Text Wrapping Break] 

Limiting the Risk of Infection and the Consequences of Isolation 

Youth prisons and jails are congregate care settings where COVID-19 can spread easily. As correctional staff come and go, they open youth up to the risk of contracting the virus. However, many of the precautions taken to protect youth have had painful, long term effects on their wellbeing. 

Some of the residents of youth prisons such as St. Charles are serving decades-long sentences. They will leave youth prison for an adult facility when they turn 21. 

Julie Anderson’s son, Eric, was sentenced to life in prison when he was 15. Since then, she has dedicated herself to advocating for more humane laws for youth who come into contact with the adult criminal legal system. She works with Restore Justice, a legislative advocacy nonprofit, and she is the founding coordinator of a support group called Communities & Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children (CRIIC). 

“When they went on lockdown, I didn’t hear from Eric, originally for three weeks. A lot of family members didn’t hear from our loved one for two to three weeks, which means you don’t know if they’re sick, you don’t know what’s going on, and you get no phone calls. It was terrifying,” she said. 

Before the pandemic, she made the three hour trip to visit her son at the Illinois River Correctional Facility in Canton seven times a month. She has not been able to see him in more than a year. In December, Eric contracted COVID-19 and moved to a quarantine unit. He was asymptomatic, but he was an infection risk. He went two to three weeks without a shower and without clean laundry. After he testified in court in January, he had to enter an isolation unit. He went to the yard for outdoor recreation in November and did not go again until February. Anderson had little to no contact with her son until the end of February, when he finally had consistent access to a phone again. Now she is able to talk to him every other day for about 20 minutes. 

The pandemic also interfered with her advocacy work. In 2019, she worked with Marshan Allen, a formerly incarcerated advocate, to pass the Youthful Parole Law, which opened the opportunities for parole for people incarcerated when they were under 21. 

“In order to get that bill passed, [Allen] and myself traveled all over Southern Illinois meeting with legislators who, maybe even though they’re Democrat in name…are not on our side of criminal justice,” she said. “We changed some hearts and minds—so first their hearts and then their minds, and we got that through.” 

This year, Restore Justice’s legislative agenda includes a bill that would expand the rights of family members visiting their incarcerated loved ones and another bill that would make firearm enhancements—mandatory additional sentencing for the use of a weapon—discretionary for emerging adults. 

Juvenile prisons and jails across the country have isolated children from outside visitors in order to limit the possibility of an outbreak. Families are depending on phone calls and intermittent Zoom sessions to check in on their children, and many facilities have limited outside programming such as Pearson’s class. 

Isolation makes detention and incarceration that much harder. “[Youths] are apart from their families at a key time for their development during adolescence. They are apart from supportive services and connections in their communities,” Burdick said.“They’re at risk for all kinds of harmful practices like use of force or solitary confinement.” 

Fewer outside observers means less accountability. “One theme of the pandemic has also been that there are fewer eyes on these facilities because lawyers and family members are not able to go in person,” Burdick explained. 

In particular, advocates were concerned about the conditions in quarantine units. “There was a lot of concern in the pandemic that places would be increasingly relying on solitary as a means of keeping youth apart for not spreading COVID,” Burdick said. 

Burdick raised concerns about how quarantine in juvenile detention centers often closely resembles solitary confinement. The longstanding negative consequences of solitary confinement are particularly pronounced in youth. 

At the JTDC, limiting the spread of the virus has reduced contact among residents. The youth at the JTDC live in 30 separate housing pods that are home to between 12 and 14 residents. Mary Wisniewski, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Office of the Chief Judge, answered some questions via email about how the JTDC is reducing the possibility of infection. All of the juveniles have their own rooms, and they eat from trays alone. Three intake pods are being used as quarantine pods. When juveniles test positive, they are completely isolated until their quarantine period is over. Upon first entering the facility, every juvenile is isolated to prevent the risk of infection. 

Despite precautions, residents and staff have contracted COVID-19. On April 1, the Office of the Chief Judge announced that three employees at the JTDC tested positive for COVID-19. Within a week, two residents and an additional employee tested positive. As of April 22, 2021, a total of 87 residents and 111 employees at the JTDC have tested positive over the course of the pandemic. 

At IYC St. Charles, the staff are particularly sensitive to the potential negative effects of isolation. Each “cottage” of residents does not interact with the other cottages on the St. Charles campus, but they all have access to outside programming. Williams explained that the facility is using the same part of the facility to isolate youths who need to quarantine that was formerly used for solitary confinement. However, they have not been kept from interacting from one another in a safe way. 

The residents who are quarantining cannot participate in programming, but Williams and the other programming coordinators are sensitive to keeping them engaged and mentally stimulated. She and other programming facilitators bring them books, puzzles, decks of cards, movies, and other activities to keep them engaged while they wait to return to the general population. “Everybody’s isolating together. They don’t put him in his cell and leave him there for two weeks. They get to have movement,” she said. 

Rapid testing is available at St. Charles, so every volunteer and correctional staff member takes a test once a week. “One thing about St. Charles was they’re definitely on top of [testing]. I’m sure that the kids are as safe as they possibly can be,” Williams said. 

Still, youth struggled with being apart from their families. Several of the youth she works with at St. Charles are parents themselves, and they went months without being able to see and hold their children. Visitations have since resumed, but many went months without being able to see their families. They were able to talk on the phone daily so long as they had enough money to make the calls, but those conversations could not compensate for in-person visits. 

As Williams explained, “They’re not able to get hugs and kisses and touch and those things that are so crucial just to being a human, but being a teenage human and not having your parents’ affection has been really difficult.” 

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