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Illinois may raise age for juvenile incarceration amid abuse allegations

Terri Dee
21 May 2024

A lawsuit filed this month against the Illinois Departments of Corrections and Juvenile Justice might help tip the scales for legislation pending in Springfield.

Through the suit, 95 men and women shared their stories of abuse by some staffers while housed in juvenile detention at the Illinois Youth Centers between 1996 and 2017, when some were as young as 14.

Elizabeth Clarke, founder and interim director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative of Illinois, said an overhaul of the system is long overdue.

"Illinois has been trying to reform its youth justice system since 2005," Clarke pointed out. "This has been a very lengthy process, it has never been really wholeheartedly entered into, they've never had the complete autonomy from an adult correctional model. So, it's been bit by bit by bit."

She noted the institute is watching House Bill 4776, which would raise the minimum age for juvenile incarceration from 13 to 14. And House Bill 2347, now under consideration in the Senate, would raise the pretrial detention age from 10 to 13.

Clarke stressed she wants to see guarantees the Juvenile Justice Ombudsperson's office has access to all the resources it needs to process youth grievances against the department.

The lawsuit indicates officials were aware of the abuse, yet no action was taken to ensure the juveniles' protection. The Department of Juvenile Justice has said the alleged abuse took place under previous administrations.

Clarke believes the sexual abuse accusations reflect another layer of failure within the department. Her organization has long spoken out against solitary confinement for children.

"The fact is, we just have to make sure young children are not locked up in Illinois," Clarke asserted. "We have to do that. We have to protect our young children. And both the excessive use of solitary and this lawsuit documenting sexual abuse shows how important it is."

Last year, a U.S. Department of Justice report found the staff perpetrators of sexual harassment were either reprimanded or disciplined in 40 percent of incidents and discharged, terminated or denied contract renewal. The lawsuit seeks the maximum amount of $2 million for each defendant.

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