Commentary: Illinois a National Leader in Juvenile Justice Reforms
May 14, 2005 | Commentary | Juvenile Justice

Originally published in the Peoria Journal Star on May 14, 2006, MacArthur President Jonathan Fanton discusses Illinois' leadership role in juvenile justice reform. 

In 1899, Illinois established the nation's first juvenile court. The court was created with the enlightened goal of providing individual attention to young people in trouble with the law. The Illinois system quickly became an international model.

But by the end of the 20th century, the line between Illinois' juvenile justice and criminal justice systems was hopelessly blurred, reflecting a national trend. The 1990s marked the peak of the system's breakdown. In reaction to the public's fear of juvenile crime, harsher and more punitive measures for young offenders were enacted. As a result, a growing number of young people were tried as adults, and many jailed in facilities with adult criminals.

Both inside and outside the system, there were limited resources available to help these young people repair their lives, such as treatment for mental illnesses or substance abuse. Consequently, recidivism among juvenile offenders increased during the '90s, reducing educational and employment prospects and exacerbating already-troubling racial disparities in arrest and detention rates. In short, the system failed too many kids and the prospects for reform were bleak.

In the past few years, however, real progress has been made in Illinois. The state is now re-emerging as a national leader in juvenile justice reform. Through a combination of public and private efforts, Illinois is enacting policies and programs to protect public safety and hold young people accountable for their actions, but also provide for their rehabilitation.

Illinois is the only state in the nation to curtail the automatic transfer of young people arrested on drug offenses to the adult criminal system, giving greater discretion to judges in these cases. Illinois is a model for community-based alternatives to detention, such as night reporting centers and electronic monitoring.

These are all steps in the right direction. How they are implemented - and how adequately they are funded - will determine ultimate success or failure.

Illinois recognizes that its juvenile justice system must be fair and rational. Adolescents are simply not as developmentally mature as adults. Although they should be held responsible for their actions, they should not be held accountable in the same way.

The MacArthur Foundation recently selected Illinois as one of only four states nationwide to participate in our juvenile justice reform initiative, "Models for Change."

Over the next five years, the foundation will provide up to $7.5 million to government and non-profit entities to build upon reform efforts already under way. We want to help create a model for change here that can be replicated elsewhere, and to attract more resources, in Illinois and across the nation, for juvenile justice reform efforts.

In this second century of juvenile justice, Illinois is once again taking the lead in demanding justice, fairness and accountability in the treatment of young people in trouble with the law. We have great faith that through these efforts Illinois will reclaim its role as a model for change around the nation.

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