In an alley in Little Village on Chicago's West Side, the faint sound of music from a Spanish-speaking radio station wafts in the air and garbage cans are sprayed with gang graffiti. They look like the tattoos on 17-year-old Elias Roman's arms.
"This [alleyway] right here is where I caught my first gun case," says Elias, who was born and raised in the neighborhood, home to a large Mexican-American community.
Elias was 15 and a gangbanger when he was busted. He tells NPR's Cheryl Corley that like many kids he ran with at the time, he had a gun. Out late one night, the cops picked him up, and he was charged with gun possession. He spent a month in a detention center, and then was put on house arrest.
Elias cut off the electronic monitor the Department of Juvenile Justice had placed around his ankle to keep up with him. Four months later, he was picked up again, charged with unlawful use of a weapon. This time, he got a longer stint in the state's juvenile centers.
Rethinking The Recidivism Issue
His story of trips through the justice system is familiar in Illinois — one of a number of states rethinking how it pursues juvenile justice to make sure kids who've committed a crime once don't end up in a juvenile facility again.
Nationally, there were more than 70,000 juvenile in residential placement facilities in 2010, according to Census Bureau data. The number was about 2,200 that same year in Illinois.
A damning report [PDF] from the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission called the state youth prison system an expensive failure. Its study showed that "well over 50 percent of youth" leaving the state's facilities will go back to juvenile facilities — and others will head to adult corrections system.
Some of the juveniles in Illinois' system committed serious offenses, the report shows. But many others are there for lesser crimes and, officials say, would be better served in treatment or educational programs.
What Requires Incarceration?
George Timberlake, a retired Illinois judge and the report commission's chairman, says the group observed more than 250 prisoner review board hearings and analyzed the files of about 400 young people whose parole was revoked.
He says many of the juveniles who ended up back in custody didn't commit new crimes, but instead were found guilty of technical violations of a parole order, such as skipping school and staying out late.
"How many teenagers do you know who are where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there?" Timberlake says. "Certainly, they need to be educated that time matters and it affects other people's schedules, but doesn't mean they need to be back in prison because of it."
Arthur Bishop, director of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Department, has been on the job for less than two years. He began his career as a caseworker in the state's child welfare agency. He says his team is in place to change the way kids in the system are treated. It's pretty simple, Bishop says: Treat kids who commit crimes more like kids, and less like adults.
The old model still exists, Bishop says. Parole officers who aren't necessarily trained to work with youth still handle many of the juvenile cases, but a new test model is up and running in the Chicago area.
Bishop says as soon as a young person arrives at a youth center, an aftercare specialist will begin to work with him or her, assessing any needs, like mental health issues. They may also have to develop a plan for their release.
"Not only does that aftercare specialist work with the youth, but they also begin to engage with families. And I'm emphasizing these points because that's not historically done," Bishop says. "Families are often put on what I call the 'pay no mind' list because many of the families ... have the same — I'll use my scientific word — 'messed up' backgrounds."
Shifting The Model
While the push to change the culture of Illinois' juvenile justice system may help reduce the number of kids who end up in facilities, it's also tied to the state's deep budget woes. In 2010, the Illinois auditor general said [PDF] that it costs an average of $86,861 a year to keep a juvenile in Illinois' Youth Centers – far more than for community-based strategies.
That point is underscored in a 2011 report released by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which shows a dramatic difference nationwide between the average annual cost for housing a juvenile compared with community-based programs and public college tuition.
The foundation, which provides financial support to NPR, also says the juvenile incarceration rate is nearly five times higher in the U.S. than in other developed nations. That's despite having "only marginally higher" rates of juvenile violent crimes.
"We really only recently have started to take stock of the developmental differences of young people and adults," says Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. "And in large measure, our juvenile correction system has been modeled after adult corrections."
Nationally, she says, there has been a trend toward treating young people and adults differently when it comes to crime. Juvenile justice services are migrating to into other state sectors, merging with mental health and education services, for example, rather than being overseen by adult corrections.
The next step in Illinois is already under way. The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission just awarded more than $1 million to two groups that will work with juvenile offenders being released but returning to areas that have the highest rates of youth incarceration in the state.
A 'Positive' Perspective
Two years ago, when Elias was caught for the first time, he says he hardly spoke to his parole officer. "I was out here — I had nothing going for myself. That's how I ended up in bars," he says.
His second time through the system was different. The state assigned a mentor to work with Elias and his family, part of Illinois' effort to reduce the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders. Since he's been out again, Elias says, he's had an entirely different mindset:
"I got a kid. I got a job. Trying to go back to school. And I got things in my head now — positive things."
CHERYL CORLEY, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Guy Raz is away. I'm Cheryl Corley.
About a week ago, I met a young man on Chicago's West Side, right outside the two-story brick apartment building where he lives.
ELIAS ROMAN: My name is Elias Roman. I'm 17, and we're on Little Village, 23rd and Washtenaw.
CORLEY: Little Village is home to a large Mexican-American community. We walk about a block to an alley where the gang graffiti on garbage cans looks like the tattoos on Elias' arms. A faint sound of music from a Spanish-speaking radio station wafts in the air. Elias was born and raised here.
ROMAN: These streets right here are my life. Bad memories, things I'll never forget.
CORLEY: You also got in trouble here.
ROMAN: Oh, yeah. This right here is where I caught my first gun case.
CORLEY: But not his last. Nationally, there are about 71,000 juveniles locked up in residential facilities. In Illinois, it's about 1,000 kids with another 1,600 on parole. Some have committed serious offenses, but many were involved in crimes like burglary or drug sales. State officials say research shows kids like that would be better served in treatment or educational programs.
Our cover story today: the push to make sure kids who've committed a crime once don't end up in a juvenile facility again.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORLEY: Two years ago, Elias was 15 years old, a gangbanger. And like a lot of kids he ran with at the time, he had a gun. Out late one night, the cops picked him up. He was charged with gun possession.
So, what happened to you then? After they caught you, you got sentenced, or what exactly...
ROMAN: Oh, they took me to a detention center for a month, and they put me on EM.
CORLEY: What is EM?
ROMAN: House arrest. They put me on house arrest. I cut that off, and I was in the (unintelligible) for, like, two or three months, and then - so they ended up catching me right over here.
CORLEY: Elias cut off the electronic monitor the Department of Juvenile Justice had placed around his ankle to keep up with him. Four months later, he was picked up again, charged with unlawful use of a weapon, this time a lot longer stint in the state's juvenile centers.
Did you ever see your parole officer the first time around?
ROMAN: No. The first time around - for my first gun case?
ROMAN: No. No, I didn't. I hardly - didn't even talk to him.
CORLEY: The second time was different. The state assigned a mentor to work with Elias and his family, part of the effort in Illinois to reduce the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders. And when he was released, says Elias, he had an entirely different mind-set.
ROMAN: I was arguing that I have nothing going for myself. That's how I ended up in bars. Because I wasn't ready to have a job. I wasn't going to school. I was just being out here being a bum.
CORLEY: Yeah, and that's different now.
ROMAN: Yeah. That's tough. And today, I got a kid. I got a job. I'm trying to go back to school. And I got things in my head now, positive things.
CORLEY: A damning report from the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission calls the state's youth prison system an expensive failure. Its study showed more than half of the young offenders detained returned to the system within three years of their release.
George Timberlake, a retired Illinois judge and the commission's chairman, says the group observed more than 250 prisoner review board hearings and analyzed the files of about 400 young people whose parole was revoked. He says many of the juveniles who ended up back in custody didn't commit new crimes, but instead were found guilty of technical violations of a parole order, such as skipping school and staying out late.
GEORGE TIMBERLAKE: How many teenagers do you know who are where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be there, you know? Certainly, they need to be educated that time matters, and it affects other people's schedules. But that doesn't mean they ought to be back in prison because of it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello, gentlemen.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Hello.
CORLEY: There are seven operating juvenile correctional facilities in Illinois. And on this day, I'm touring the youth center in Chicago with Arthur Bishop, the director of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Department. Florescent lights buzz overhead in the gymnasium as Bishop stops to chat with the teenagers getting ready to play basketball.
ARTHUR BISHOP: All right. Good to see you again, man. You remember that conversation we had?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) conversation.
BISHOP: All right. OK. (Unintelligible)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Fourteen more days, sir.
BISHOP: All right. Fourteen more days. You're back in the community, right?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mm-hmm.
BISHOP: You're going to stay there, right?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Stay there.
BISHOP: All right. How you doing, man?
CORLEY: Bishop's been on the job for less than two years. He began his career as a caseworker in the state's child welfare agency. He says his team is in place to change the way kids in the system are treated. It's pretty simple: Treat kids who commit crimes more like kids and less like adults. The old model still exists, says Bishop. Parole officers who aren't necessarily trained to work with youth still handle many of the juvenile cases. But a new test model is up and running in the Chicago area.
BISHOP: We assign an aftercare specialist to a youth at their front door, and so discharge planning starts at the point a youth arrives.
CORLEY: The aftercare specialist starts assessing whether the juvenile offender has any special needs, like mental health or educational issues that need to be addressed. Do they have any strong interests? It's all part of developing the plan for their release.
BISHOP: Not only does that aftercare specialist work with the youth, but they also begin to engage with families. And I'm emphasizing these points because that's not historically done. Families are often put on what I call the pay no mind list, because many of the families - at least about 55 percent according to our assessment - have the same - I'll use my scientific word - messed up backgrounds.
JANICE GRIFFIN: My name is Janice Griffin.
CORLEY: And, Janice, what's your title?
GRIFFIN: I'm an aftercare specialist with the Department of Juvenile Justice.
CORLEY: Griffin, a clinical therapist, was one of the first aftercare specialists hired. She began working with 19-year-old Adon(ph) about a month before he was released from a juvenile facility.
ADON: July 26 last year.
CORLEY: OK. You know that day.
ADON: Yeah, I do.
CORLEY: Adon got into a fight. Things got out of hand. He was 16 at the time. He did about a year in a county juvenile detention facility before he was transferred to one of the state's youth centers. That's when he met Griffin.
GRIFFIN: He talked about his son the first time I met him, and he wanted to be a good role model for his son. So he understood what he needed to do. We went over parole orders, what the parole orders were, which was school, to seek employment. And he had a substance abuse assessment. He needed to go to mental health services. He's done all of those things.
CORLEY: Griffin says Adon has been a joy to work with, and he says she's been important to him.
ADON: I don't even see her as like - it doesn't feel like she's my parole officer because we get along real well. We have a good relationship.
CORLEY: And he says he has advice for other young people who might be hotheaded.
ADON: Stop and think, and think things through and make the best choice, even if someone might call you a coward. But you know it's right. It doesn't matter what people say.
CORLEY: Is that hard to do?
CORLEY: Was it hard to do when you were 16?
CORLEY: While changing the culture of the juvenile justice system in Illinois may help lower the number of kids who end up in the state's facilities, it's a push that's necessary in part because of the state's extreme budget woes. On average, it costs a nearly whopping $90,000 to house a juvenile in the state's juvenile facilities, while community-based services cost between four and $10,000 annually.
Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, keeps track of the reform efforts around the country and juvenile statistics. Here in the U.S., the rate of violent crime by juveniles has actually dropped. Our arrest rate is only slightly higher than that of other developed countries, but Gannon acknowledges that the custody rate for those types of juvenile offenders in the United States is five times higher.
NANCY GANNON HORNBERGER: There's a couple of things that explain that. One is that we really only recently have started to take stock of the developmental differences of young people and adults. And in large measure, our juvenile correction system has been modeled after adult corrections. And part of it, too, is a widespread belief that we have in the United States that we can scare young people away from committing crime. Other countries have demonstrated that incarceration is not the solution to juvenile offending, that we should take developmental differences into consideration and that the response should fit the offense.
CORLEY: A lot of folks go, you're really being soft on crime here. If these kids committed some offense, this is where they need to be, you know, not, quote, "coddling them" in some way. Is it coddling, or...
HORNBERGER: You have to look at a number of different angles. So a lot of young people have unmet and undiagnosed needs, in mental health, in special education, they may have experienced trauma. It's almost like what is the right dosage. So it's a little counterintuitive. You talk about reducing re-offense and recidivism and people think, oh, let's keep the kids in the facilities longer.
But criminologists in their studies have shown the longer young people who offend are in corrections, the more likely they are to be criminals in adulthood. So there's no safety benefit to that.
CORLEY: Yeah. I want to ask you then about some of the recommendations that were made to Illinois...
CORLEY: ...and as a result of that. One of the things they did - and they did this a few years back - was they kind of decoupled the juvenile justice system from the adult corrections system.
CORLEY: Is that common? Are more states doing that? I think some people are surprised to know that the young folks who commit crimes are supervised by the adult criminal system.
HORNBERGER: So there is a positive trend in the country to move juvenile justice services to a stronger youth development and rehabilitative model in the same sector of the state where you see children's mental health, education and human services, and that's a very positive trend in general. There's less stigma. They get reconnected with positive supports more quickly. And if we take the dollars that we're spending on those high-priced corrections placements and we put them into comprehensive family intervention and re-entry services, such as education and employment skills development, they are dollars better spent every time for every kid.
CORLEY: Nancy Gannon Hornberger, she is the executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. And a last note about the juvenile justice reform efforts in Illinois: The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission just awarded more than a million dollars to two groups who work with kids who served their time for their crime but who are returning to areas which have the highest rates of youth incarceration in the state. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.