CHICAGO — Conditions and services for young persons detained at six state-run juvenile justice facilities across Illinois will dramatically improve under a plan filed in court late last week. The agreed plan was jointly filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU) and the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) in R.J. v. Jones, a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in September 2012 to improve conditions at these facilities.
Numerous reports, including this past fall by the R.J. court-appointed experts, have uncovered inadequate conditions faced by youth at the facilities over many years. If the judge approves the proposed plan, conditions will be improved in five areas long defined as problematic.
- Education. Historically, youth in DJJ facilities faced educational settings with far too many youths per teacher, a ratio far too high to provide minimally adequate education. The plan requires a five-hour school day, education services for all youths, and student-to-teacher ratios of 10:1 for general classes and 6:1 for classes with students that require more individual attention.
- Mental health treatment. DJJ has failed to provide minimally adequate mental health treatment to youths with great mental health needs. The deficiency resulted because DJJ had too many youths with a need for mental health treatment with too few mental health professionals. The plan requires individualized mental health treatment, appointment of a mental health leadership team, and the establishment of appropriate mental health staffing levels.
- Idleness. Many youth have been forced to spend the bulk of their time in their cells or day rooms with nothing to occupy the endless hours. The plan requires opportunities for every youth to spend at least eight hours per day (not including meals and showers) in supervised activities such as school, mental health treatment, exercise, and work assignments. To do this, and to ensure safety from violence, the plan requires youth-to-security staff ratios to increase to 8:1 by day and 16:1 by night.
- Solitary confinement. Placing a youth in solitary confinement is inherently counter-therapeutic and dangerous, but all too common. The plan bars use of the solitary confinement units for disciplinary reasons. It also requires a new policy with further limits on when and how DJJ may restrain youths’ freedom of movement.
- Continued DJJ incarceration solely for lack of a community placement. For many years DJJ has maintained custody over many youths who are ready for release, simply because they lack a community placement. The plan requires DJJ to hire a placement coordinator, initiate placement planning within two weeks of a youth’s arrival at DJJ, and take all reasonable steps to increase the number of available placements.
- Protecting LGBT youths. The plan requires new policy and training to protect LGBT youths from violence and harassment. It also requires individualized decision making, including input from mental health staff, regarding housing and services for transgender youths.
“Taken together, this plan provides a real opportunity for improving the lives of youths detained by the State of Illinois,” said Adam Schwartz, senior legal counsel for the ACLU of Illinois. “The plan represents an enforceable mechanism for moving forward.”
The plan is the latest development in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in September 2012 on behalf of all DJJ youths, along with a proposed consent decree reached with the DJJ. In December 2012, the judge approved that decree, which required three court-appointed experts to investigate DJJ conditions and services. In September 2013, the experts publicly filed their reports, which found inadequate education and mental health services, excessive solitary confinement, and other deficiencies. The consent decree required the parties, after the filing of the expert reports, to negotiate the remedial plan. In coming weeks, the judge will decide whether to approve the jointly proposed remedial plan. If the judge approves the remedial plan, then the consent decree will require the DJJ to implement the plan, and will require the court-appointed experts and the ACLU to monitor and enforce the plan.