Nearly 10 percent of the inmates in Illinois' juvenile prisons have essentially completed their sentences — in some cases more than a year ago — but are stuck behind bars because they have no place to go, state records show.
Many of the youths are being held longer in one of the state's eight juvenile prisons because officials cannot find an appropriate placement in a transitional living program or other kind of facility. Others are still in prison because officials found the homes of families or friends to be unacceptable, or because families simply refuse to take them back, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Notes in the records tell sad stories. "Youth has no family that will take him," reads the comment in the case of one downstate boy who was sent to prison for aggravated robbery and was still there two months beyond his scheduled release.
"Placement denied 5X w/relatives," reads the status report on another case. The names of the youths were redacted by state officials because of their age.
As of Tuesday, 104 of the 1,107 inmates in the state's juvenile prisons, or 9.4 percent, were still behind bars even though their expected parole dates had passed.
The percentage has remained relatively steady since the department began tracking the figures in September 2005, though at times it has crept higher than 10 percent.
The issue underscores a persistent problem that Department of Juvenile Justice director Kurt Friedenauer has made a priority to tackle: a lack of aftercare for some of the state's most troubled youths.
"Our goal is not to keep kids for the sake of keeping kids," Friedenauer said. "Our goal is to prepare them for re-entry back to the community and for them to be successful there. But you have to have a (placement) to do that. … We simply do not have the financial resources to purchase the appropriate services."
A youth's administrative review date, or ARD, is a guideline for when he or she is expected to be approved for parole by the state Prisoner Review Board. But without a plan in place for where the youth will go upon release, youths either are held back from appearing before the board or are approved for parole pending a placement, according to Friedenauer.
Many youths kept beyond their ARD remain in prison for months. In some of the more extreme cases, youths have been held for close to a year, with a handful held for more than a year after their ARD. Two youths were held for 1,000 additional days, or nearly three years, according to the most recent figures available, which date to January.
The Department of Juvenile Justice is responsible for finding placements for nearly all the youths. A small number of cases involve wards of the state, and as a result the Department of Children and Family Services is responsible for finding homes for those youths.
Some cases appear complicated by family and friends whose homes are deemed unsuitable because of their own legal problems or because they do not have the means to accommodate a youth. The documents suggest that officials, over time, make several efforts to find homes for the youths, often approaching various relatives and friends to try to find an appropriate placement.
"Aunt denied by parole. Uncle has refused. Working on other (extended) family," one document reads.
In another case, in which a 20-year-old was more than a year past his ARD, the comment reads: "Youth had approved parole site; mother had change of heart, site denied. Mother seeking other resources."
Advocates for the youths and observers of the system say the shortage of community placements is real. But they also say the department could take better advantage of resources to shift the system from a focus on prison and punishment to a more community-rooted approach involving a range of facilities and services. It is cheaper, they say, to spend money on community facilities than on keeping kids behind bars.
"It's completely unfair to keep these youths in prison simply because they don't have the resources for what is supposed to come next," said Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
"There's just no excuse for that whatsoever," said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative.
Friedenauer said most of the youths require a transitional living program, a place where they are housed and supervised but leave for school or work and also get treatment. The department's goal, he said, is to have more places in the community for these youths. That, he said, would move inmates out of the department's prisons at a quicker pace once they have completed treatment.
"One of the visions we have for the department is that we get to the point where we never have a youth in one of our facilities because there's not an appropriate aftercare service for them," Friedenauer said in an interview.
But the department, which was split from the Department of Corrections in 2006 and now is poised to be folded into the Department of Children and Family Services, has struggled to meet its goals, including developing transitional facilities for youths. Part of the problem has been neglect; the juvenile department has been underfunded. Funding for aftercare has been flat for four years, Friedenauer said.
The youths trapped in the system are, for the most part, held in four of the eight youth prisons. Many are sex offenders, whose placements often are more difficult and more expensive than for other inmates.
While in prison, these youths continue to get treatment and schooling. If they have earned a high school diploma or GED, they attend vocational classes. Nevertheless, Friedenauer said, the youths and staff become frustrated and risk backsliding in whatever progress the youths have made while incarcerated.
"It's discouraging for us that we don't have the ability to move these young people into a community setting," said Friedenauer. "And certainly it's discouraging for them. … We have to keep their hopes up."
Freed from prison, some juveniles have no place to go
Placement can be difficult, resulting in some youths staying in prison for months — or years — after their release date
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