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New tack on teen justice: a push away from prisons

Illinois leads a wave of states focusing on rehabilitation as a cure for the high number of repeat offenders and costly jails.

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Cook County, home of the nation's first juvenile court, created in 1899, hasn't always had the best track record for dealing with young offenders.

A 1995 Chicago Tribune editorial deplored the local juvenile detention center's filthy conditions, unqualified staff, and children who "languish there like warehoused animals."

But these days, spurred by a state recidivism rate around 50 percent and research showing clear differences between the ways adolescents and adults cope with jail time, Illinois is rethinking its approach to juvenile justice.

In doing so, it's leading a wave of new policy approaches nationwide that emphasize rehabilitation and intervention programs over simple punishment and incarceration for youths, or the "scaring them straight" strategies favored by many during the 1990s crime waves.

The state's pilot programs and brand new Juvenile Justice Department were centerpieces of a MacArthur Foundation conference on juvenile justice reform this week – just a few days after the Department of Justice released new statistics showing that a record 7 million Americans, or 1 in 32 adults, is now in prison or on parole.

Other states, like Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Washington have been experimenting with similar programs.

"People have a sense that incarceration in itself, at the levels that we are incarcerating kids, doesn't necessarily work," says Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, which favors juvenile justice reform. "Because of the falling crime rates, because of the state budget crisis, which makes states look at how much they spend on the justice system, because of Roper v. Simmons [the 2005 Supreme Court case that made capital punishment illegal for offenders under the age of 18], and because of the research, we have seen a sea change."

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