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Report: Overhaul of Juvenile Justice System Needed

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Research indicates kids who commit low-level crimes often are dealing with poverty, domestic violence and drug abuse. (cdc.gov)
Research indicates kids who commit low-level crimes often are dealing with poverty, domestic violence and drug abuse. (cdc.gov)
 By Linda Barr/Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IL, Contact
May 16, 2018

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - The current juvenile-justice system in this country doesn't work as well as it should, according to a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that calls for changes to ensure that young people are being helped, not hampered.

The research showed that young people respond more positively to rewards and opportunities than they do to punishment. Avik Das, acting director and chief probation officer of Juvenile Probation and Court Services for Cook County, said young people need to be allowed to stay in school, and probation officers are better able to guide them in the right direction if they're in their own communities.

"Juvenile probation officers are supposed to come alongside kids, see them where they're at, give them opportunity and encouragement, help develop supportive systems around them that will stay with them," he said, "so that they don't fall deeper into the system or that we don't or lose them to something more tragic like violence."

The report called for a dramatic reduction in the size of the juvenile-probation population and noted that evidence shows most kids will outgrow their delinquent phase without police intervention.

Steve Bishop, senior associate with the Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, said there has to be a shift in the mindset, because simply being on probation doesn't "fix" kids - but it can mobilize the necessary resources to support them for the long term.

"A lot of these youth are the youth we can least afford to kind of get it wrong with," he said. "They're young people who've often endured a good bit of trauma in their own lives and been working through a lot of crisis and issues. These are the young people we should really be reserving our most effective and innovative interventions for."

Cook County was the home of the nation's first juvenile court in 1899, and Das said it's been one of the country's model sites to offer alternatives to incarceration.

"For over a century," he said, "the idea is how do we help young people enter successfully into adulthood, adopt behaviors that are law abiding, essentially rehabilitate them, and give them the kind of competency that we would hope for all children and young people?"

The report is online at aecf.org.

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