Illinois counting on Cook County program to fix juvenile parole

Jun 9, 2014

The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice headquarters. The department is trying to fix a parole system with an 86 percent re-incarceration rate.
Credit Illinois Public Radio/WBEZ

Here’s a number that will stop you in your tracks: 86 percent of kids who spend time in Illinois prison, end up going back. Everybody involved agrees that to fix that, kids need a special kind of help when they get out, not just parole like adults get. The state’s counting on a small pilot program in Cook County to lead the way. It’s called Aftercare. The name gives you an idea of all that’s intended: counseling, help with school and getting off drugs. Officials are rushing to expand the pilot statewide. Thing is, after three years, there’s no evidence it’s working. Illinois Public Radio’s Patrick Smith explains. 

In April, dozens of people on the West Side gathered for a grim vigil. They were marking the anniversary of a teenager killed a few years back. It’s a pretty common scene in tough Chicago neighborhoods, where the streets ensnare kids.

So, there’s a million reasons to create a support system for the ones who come back to violent blocks after prison. For one thing, if they can stay out, it would  mean money saved for a broke state. But a major reason is to avoid scenes like this one. Kids who go to prison are more likely to commit violent crime when they come back.

"The youth that get we get rather they’re involved with the violence. Murder. Either they’ve been shot or their friends been shot," says Edwin Day. He's one of the people trying to figure out how to get through to the kids caught in this cycle.

I wanted to see the Aftercare pilot in action since the state is at the beginning of a big expansion, but the Department of Juvenile Justice wouldn’t let me shadow state workers. So, I had to go one step removed. That’s how I ended up riding along with with Edwin Day. His nonprofit has a grant to help check in on a handful of the Aftercare kids.

"Our young people are in a state of emergency right now, and what I stand on is that we’re trying to advocate against the violence," says Day.

Day is part of a tiny ‘add on’ that serves less than 3 percent of all the kids on parole. 

For the most part, state aftercare workers who have to find kids drug treatment, counseling and school options have no such assistance and heavy caseloads. And these are difficult kids to reach.

Patrick Smith: "Before this, you said you got kicked out of a school and had a warrant so it sounds like you’ve been in trouble before. Yeah?"

Adam: " Yeah."

Patrick Smith: "Is two months of clean drops and going to school a big deal?"

Adam's mom: "To me it is."

This map shows the 10 counties across Illinois with the highest number of juvenile parolees who are sent back to prison.
Credit Illinois Public Radio/WBEZ
Adam is a 16-year-old who lives with his mom in K-Town, a rough section of Chicago’s West Side. He was sent to prison last March on a gun charge. Since then he’s been out and back once already. While inside, he averaged more than one trip a month to solitary for things like fighting and punching a guard in the face.

Day tries to check in with him daily.

"Yes he can be a handful for mom at times but he’s a pretty good kid but he just needs some support," says Day.

It seems like Adam is getting that support. But so far, experts say, most of the kids on Aftercare aren’t. 

"You look at the numbers and we don’t have 2013 yet but while there was a 10 percent decrease in admissions here, there was a 7 percent decrease in re-admissions," says Betsy Clarke. She heads up a small nonprofit, the Juvenile Justice Initiative, in her cluttered 3-room office in downtown Evanston.

Clarke has been working on improving Illinois juvenile justice since before the department even existed. Clarke says fixing parole has been a key goal of the agency since it began eight years ago. And she’s frustrated they still haven’t gotten it right.

The Cook County pilot program started in the spring of 2011, but the department hasn’t done a single study of its effectiveness, or at least not one that it’s willing to share with the public. What numbers are available do not paint a positive picture. The number of Cook County youth sent back actually went up in the first year of the program.

"Any measure of success depends first and foremost on decreasing the rate of return. If we still have a 53 percent return then whatever that Cook pilot is doing is not having a positive impact," says Clarke. 

Credit David E. Olson, Loyola University / Illinois Public Radio/WBEZ
Candice Jones is the department's new director. She says, "It’s hard to assess the pilot in Cook based on that statewide figure."

Jones took over DJJ at the end of January, and she says she wants her administration to be more open and transparent. But she says there aren’t any numbers to show whether or not aftercare is working. Jones: "I know Betsy and I’ve worked with Betsy and I respect her but  the jury’s still out."

Patrick Smith: "And do you have those violation rates? Not three year recidivism but violation…"

Jones: "Not that we can talk about not yet."

Clarke and other experts I talked to complained about the departments’ lack of transparency. But Jones protests that she isn’t hiding information, they just don’t have any.

Patrick Smith: "So, why are we rolling out a program that has not been evaluated?"

Jones: "We know based on what other people are doing that these are the right models. It’s always best to wait until you have the best data to make decisions but we don’t have that luxury we have to make some tough decisions about a plane we’re building as we fly it."

The other people she’s talking about are juvenile experts in Pennsylvania. See, the Aftercare model is the darling of juvenile justice advocates, and Jones, and just about everyone else I talked to, points to Pennsylvania as a state that does Aftercare right.

Kids in Pennsylvania return to the juvenile justice system at a rate of about 22 percent. Remember, in Illinois it’s 53 percent if you only count the kids who go back to youth prisons. The number jumps to 86 percent if you include those who end up in adult prisons too.

Pennsylvania’s Aftercare model is based on kids being sent to treatment facilities instead of prisons, but Illinois kids still serve their time in youth prisons with inadequate education and mental health treatment.

John Maki, the director of prison watchdog John Howard Association, says he agrees with the concept of Aftercare...

"But, at a certain level words don’t matter, it’s about what is a system set up to do? And this is a system that by-and-large teaches kids to live in prison and teaches kids to re-offend," says Maki.

But Maki says he’s heartened by the moves DJJ director Jones has made so far.

"At John Howard we have a lot of hope for the current administration. We think they’re making some very important changes."

Jones says that’s because she’s knows the stakes.

"We’ve got a lot of work to do and we have a tiny team doing it and we have to get it right. Any fumbles, any missteps can undercut the foundation of what really is the right thing to do," says Jones. 

About 10 miles west of her downtown office, the stakes are even clearer. The day I met Edwin Day at his office in Austin, he’s just gotten an invitation…. 

"They wanted me to come over and come to a prayer rally because there was a young man who got shot on North Avenue," says Day.

It happened the Saturday before, near the corner of Linder and North Avenue, somebody walked up behind 17-year-old Jaquez Williams and shot him in the head.

In tomorrow’s story we’re gonna bring you more from the time I spent with Edwin Day on the West Side, and check in to see how Day’s Aftercare teen, Adam, has been doing.