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Stemming the Tide of Youth in Prison

About 70 percent of the young people arrested in Illinois are dealing with mental health issues. (womenshealth.gov)
About 70 percent of the young people arrested in Illinois are dealing with mental health issues. (womenshealth.gov)
April 9, 2018

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Seven in 10 juveniles arrested in Illinois have underlying mental health issues, and advocates are urging lawmakers to offer them treatment rather than jail time.

According to the report “Stemming the Tide,” 30,000 young people have been arrested and 11,000 incarcerated in the state. Public Defender Amy Campanelli is calling on lawmakers to implement a diversion plan like the one that's been successful in the Miama-Dade area in Florida.

It allows officers to issue citations to 8- to 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors, rather than taking them to jail. The young people are then evaluated to see if intervention is needed.

Campanelli said the key to success is that the program is run by a social service agency, rather than the criminal justice system.

"If you look at the last 40 years, what has punishment done? What have tough-on-crime laws done? What has the drug war done? Nothing,” Campanelli said. “It has incarcerated, the majority, black and brown youths, taken away generations of people from their families, and it has not made us safer."

The Illinois Legislature created a task force to produce the report. The panel made 14 recommendations, including improving mental health screenings for early identification of youth at risk, and having someone check up on those kids after release to make sure they're back in school and receiving treatment.

Jen McGowan-Tomke, co-chair of the task force and associate director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said another issue that has to be addressed is the shortage of treatment programs in Illinois.

"Youth that are arrested, about 70 percent, have a mental health condition,” McGowan-Tomke said. “We have a critical need to invest in community-based mental health services as there is a significant shortage across Illinois."

Campanelli said the state also needs to address the impact of poverty and racism in the juvenile justice system.

"These are the next leaders in our country, and we have to stop using this narrative that 'oh, you know, it's the south and west sides,’” she said. “These are real people, they have names, they have lives, they have parents, they have siblings. And we have to look at the individual and what they can give to society."

The report also called for training crisis-intervention teams, and restoring funding for the Mental Health Juvenile Justice Programs.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IL