Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=123505
Story Retrieval Date: 5/21/2013 9:34:16 PM CST
To illustrate the success of Illinois' juvenile justice reform movement, Judge George Timberlake recounts one of his professional failures.
The story starts in 2001 in a courtroom in downstate Franklin County, with a 14-year-old girl charged with theft for stealing from her mother. The mother had turned to the courts out of desperation, Timberlake said, because the girl was sneaking out her window at night, coming home at 4 a.m. "covered in hickeys."
Timberlake sentenced her to home confinement, but it didn't help. She began hanging out with gang members and became more promiscuous; she was placed on probation and did a stint in a county juvenile detention facility.
By the time Timberlake found out the girl had been sexually abused as a child – a known catalyst for delinquent behavior – he had already sent her to the Illinois Department of Corrections, a move he said didn't rehabilitate her, but pushed the girl further into a life of crime.
"I don't think it did her a damn bit of good, but I didn't know what else to do," said Timberlake, a judge with the 2nd Circuit, which comprises 12 counties in southern Illinois. "There weren't a lot of options."
In 2005, the circuit became a test site for a new state-sponsored program called Redeploy Illinois. In return for promising to reduce their commitments to state prisons by 25 percent, county courts got state money for community-based alternatives.
The basic idea was to reverse the odd financial incentives that encouraged judges to send kids to state prison, said John Payne, a retired judge who is now the state coordinator of Redeploy Illinois. If the child went to state prison, the state paid. Any community-based alternatives were on the county's dime.
The first year, 93 youths went to Redeploy Illinois instead of state prison. The four original sites – Macon, Peoria and St. Clair counties and the counties in the 2nd Circuit – reduced their commitments to the state by 45 percent from pre-program levels, well above the threshold required by the state.
Timberlake remembers one of them well.
It was one of the stranger cases of his 22 years on the bench: a girl caught stealing floor mats out of restaurants, in plain sight of staff. Everyone thought it was probably a prank, but when she missed several court hearings, Timberlake was forced to issue a warrant for her arrest. It looked like she, too, was headed to Illinois' criminal justice system.
But when she was finally brought in, the girl was given a mental health evaluation by a psychologist at Southern Illinois University, which the county hired with Redeploy Illinois money to do all its exams.
Before 2005, kids were usually sent to the nearest state prison for mental evaluations, either because the county didn't have the staff or didn't want to pay a private doctor. The reports that came back were notoriously bare-bones, Timberlake said, and often missed mental problems or other things that could explain delinquent behavior.
The girl said she was hearing voices telling her to steal. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, put on medication and left the court system without a conviction.
"It made me feel, for the first time, like I was doing my job," Timberlake said. "When I kept seeing the same kids in my courtroom, I realized that what we were doing wasn’t working. This is working."
It's also cheaper: Each bed at a state prison costs more than $70,000 per year, according to Department of Juvenile Justice budgets. A year of Redeploy Illinois programs – which include educational support, transportation and intense family counseling – run between $2,500 and $9,500 per year.
Since 2005, almost 400 youths have avoided prison time by going through the program. In January, five new sites opened: Kankakee, Lee, McLean and Madison counties, and the three southern Illinois counties in the 4th Circuit. Funding is up to $3 million for this year – still below total costs, but enough to make the program viable.
And right now, there's a bill on Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk that would make Redeploy Illinois a permanent fixture of the state’s juvenile justice system.
"It's not about getting softer on crime or tougher on crime," Payne said. "It's about getting smarter on crime."