Illinois now has several new laws in effect aimed at keeping teens out of the state prison system. One group is praising one change in particular, which could affect some of Illinois' youngest residents.
The amendment to Illinois' Juvenile Court Act now says children under 13 should not be sent to county detention facilities. Instead, law enforcement agents will first have to contact a local youth service provider to find temporary housing for the child. Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative, says the state is taking another step in the right direction.
"We want to do no harm," Clarke says. "We know that detention, even for one night with such a young child, could do a great deal of harm."
The change went into effect on January 1, 2016. It says if a provider is not able to enroll a young child in a program, only then can the child be placed in detention. Clarke points to a Northwestern University study which shows youth detention can have negative, long-term mental health effects on children and teens.
Ultimately, the goal is to help reduce the state's youth prison population. Raising the age for child detention earned bipartisan support last summer. The move is in line with lawmakers working for restorative justice programs, and also conservatives who want to cut state spending on the prison system, but Clarke says progress has been slow.
"We have been, bit by bit over the years, decreasing the number of children under the age of 13 that we lock up," says Clarke.
According to the state Department of Juvenile Justice, 10 years ago, Illinois had more than 1,600 children in detention. That number is now down to about 600 statewide.