Thursday, October 3rd
Next JJI SUMMIT @JJInitiative
The Juvenile Justice Initiative works to achieve humane, equitable and sustainable reforms for children and young adults in the justice system .


Reimagining Justice for Young Adults: Lessons from Effective Systems @JJI Summit
On June 5 th , JJI and Columbia University Justice Lab’s Emerging Adults Justice Project hosted a forum in North Lawndale to learn from international experts about the most effective approaches to young adults in the justice system. Speakers included 7 current and former Illinois legislators, 2 judges, policy advisors to both the Cook County State’s Attorney and Public Defender, and a prosecutor and prison director from Germany and a judge from Croatia. Panelists challenged us to reimagine our juvenile and young adult justice systems as systems focused on human dignity, restoration and normalization, as opposed to the punitive system we currently have. And the kicker of course is that we don’t actually have to use our imaginations - we just have to look at what most of the developed world does. 

Vincent Shiraldi, Co-Director of Justice Lab at Columbia University framed the problem in the U.S. by highlighting the key findings of a report from the Justice Lab on young adults in the Illinois criminal justice system: 

  • Illinois has one of the highest incarceration rates of African American young adults in the nation (18 to 25 year olds) at 2,447 per 100,000. That’s 2.5 times higher than California, 3 times higher than New York, and 9 times higher than Massachusetts.

  • African American young adults are 9.4 times more likely than their white peers to be incarcerated.

  • Over 2,000 youth age 18-21 were admitted to Cook County Jail on misdemeanor or other petty offenses in 2017.  

The European experts presented an alternative, and more effective, approach:

  • Joerg Jesse, the Director General of Prisons for Mecklenberg-Western- Pomerania and Andres Ritter, Chief Public Prosecutor for Rostock, Germany clarified that the German prosecutorial and prison systems are based on a national constitutional requirement that all persons be treated with human dignity.  

  • In Germany, under the age of 14 you are a child and can not be prosecuted. From age 14-18, you are a juvenile and can only be prosecuted and sentenced as a juvenile. From age 18-21, you are an adolescent and are prosecuted in the juvenile system, but eligible for either a juvenile or adult sentence. The German prosecutor explained why juvenile sentences have been used for young adults, especially in cases involving violent offenses, since the 1950’s – the juvenile sentences get better results.

  • In Germany, prison staff receive TWO YEARS of training. As a result, staff are fully trained in the German prison model of normalization and rehabilitation. Prisons are safer than in the U.S., and incarcerated persons are fully occupied with a range of educational and vocational programs. The removal from their families is the punishment – the rest of the prison experience is focused on preparation to reenter society.

  • Several panelists who participated in a JJI sponsored educational mission to Germany last winter, including State Senator Laura Fine, reflected on the transformative impact of seeing the German young adult prison facilities first-hand and urged Illinois to prioritize human dignity in how we treat our incarcerated population. In particular, Era Laudermilk and Michelle Mbkeani, policy advisors to Cook County Public Defender and State’s Attorney respectively, both emphasized the profound impact of systems based on normalizing life within prison. You can view comments from the educational mission team here and here.

  • Senator Fine also spoke of her commitment to raise the age of juvenile court to 21, noting that her bill, SB 239, presents an incremental approach toward reform by raising the age to 21 for misdemeanor offenses.

  • A panel of 6 current legislators discussed the current appetite in Springfield for reform, and the balance between political feasibility and effectiveness. Their general sense was that reform like Sen. Fine’s bill was possible given the current administration’s commitment to social justice and reform.

  • And attendees heard from the Judiciary – Judge Colleen Sheehan updated participants on the success and challenges in the innovative restorative justice community court for young adults in North Lawndale, and Appellate Justice Aurelia Pucinski noted her opinion in a recent case challenging truth in sentencing as applied to juveniles tried as adults. Justice Pucinski further commented that it’s difficult to imagine how a child – who is not old enough for many adult activities – can waive Miranda’s right to a lawyer during custodial interrogation.   
JJI is grateful to the many panelists and our board members who made the June 5th Summit a day of Reimagining our systems of justice for young adults.  You can find more background on these issues on our website.  

JJI Board Retreat – Examining Detention in Central Illinois

The JJI Board’s annual retreat in July focused on detention, and opened with the observation that Illinois has significantly better results from downstate investments in community colleges than prisons – a point brought home by meeting at the campus of Richland Community College in Decatur. We were fortunate to be joined by State Rep. Sue Scherer, Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe, Macon County Sheriff Antonio D. Brown, and Representatives from State Senator Andy Manar’s office and the Decatur Police Department for an update on the most recent detention data (from 2017) released by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. Shawn Freeman with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Juvenile Justice Commission presented the data and focused on detention rates in central Illinois and Macon County in particular. Among the more significant points shared, the total number of state detention admissions were 9,527, which is down 5% from 2016, central Illinois makes up about 25% of all admissions, and black male youth are 8 times more likely to be detained than white males. 
The presentation was followed by a review of JJI’s updated report on policy issues in detention in Illinois, focused on the psychological harm detention does to children, the need to limit detention of children to a last resort, the need to expand the use and availability of diversion programs in more rural counties, and the financial burden under-used and closed facilities continue to be on the state and counties. 

JJI’s report contains a series of recommendations, including raising the minimum age of detention from 10 to 14, ending detention for property, drug and other nonviolent offenses, ending detention for probation violations, and ensuring 24/7 court review of the critical decision to detain a child.  The report can be accessed here .

JJI’s Board is deeply committed to the international standard that detention should only be used as a last resort for as short a time as possible and in humane conditions, acknowledging the profound harm even a short stay in detention causes to a child. JJI board member Amy Campanelli reminded participants that law enforcement has a large amount of discretion in terms of deciding whether a child ends up in the system or a diversion program, and needs to be fully trained and resourced to ensure they can fully utilize diversion alternatives. JJI board member Keyria Rodgers announced that Macon County had recently been approved for grant funding to establish a coordinating council to focus on juvenile detention alternatives, by encouraging the use of social programs and services. 
Many thanks to our central Illlinois board members, especially Courtney Carson (Decatur School Board Member and Director of Essential Skills for Richland Community College) and Keyria Rodgers (Dir. and Instructor, Criminal Justice, Millikin University), for hosting our retreat.


JJI is committed to advancing the rights of children and young adults in the justice system here in Illinois. A huge part of that work involves utilizing the various skills and expertise of our Board of Directors, volunteers, and individuals who have been impacted by the juvenile justice system in Illinois. Over the years we have made it a point to build a diverse network of dedicated advocates and individuals striving to advance the rights of children and young adults. On July 18, 2019, JJI held our first-ever young professionals mixer. This mixer was an opportunity for new people to hear about the impact JJI has had in underserved communities in Illinois. 

With close to fifty people in attendance, JJI has once again expanded our network, while tapping into the network of activist young professionals who desire to be plugged in to work and organizations that not only advances their careers but also does serious work in improving their communities and fighting for a more just society. 

At the mixer we heard from Alderman and JJI Board Chair Mike Rodriguez welcoming guests and explaining a little of the history and purpose of JJI. Next, JJI Board Member Eduardo Bocanegra from Heartland Alliance, and Marshan Allen from Restore Justice, both shared their experiences as children who were prosecuted and incarcerated in the adult justice system, the inhumane treatment in our prison system, and their quest for justice reform in adulthood. Hearing their stories further invigorated the crowd who left invested in reform to ensure human dignity for all.

JJI gives special thanks to Illinois State Bar Mutual Insurance for donating space for the Mixer, to Revolution Beer for their donation, and to JJI Board Members Mark Hassakis and Development Committee Chair Christine Bass for their assistance and support.