This article ran in The Southern on July 18, 2017:
HARRISBURG — The ACLU on Tuesday filed a motion on behalf of the staff at the Illinois Youth Center in Harrisburg citing criminal charges against the Department of Juvenile Justice/IYC Harrisburg Youth Center.
The charges stem from the alleged ongoing practice of malicious prosecutions for minor disciplinary matters a news release from the ACLU said.
Several dozen youth in custody at an Illinois Youth Center in Saline County have been unfairly and unnecessarily prosecuted by the Saline County State’s Attorney’s office for what are often trivial charges, including spitting on staff members, the news release said.
ACLU Director of Communications and Public Policy Ed Yohnka said furthermore “these events which should be prosecuted as internal disciplinary matters are being handled in courts with adult charges attached.”
The lawsuit said this is a “deliberate and concerted attack” upon the DJJ disciplinary structure put in place by a 2012 Consent Decree and remedial plan.
As part of that agreement with DJJ, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly approved an end to lengthy, isolated confinement as part of punishment.
When the threat of solitary confinement was removed, the lawsuit alleges that certain DJJ staff at IYC Harrisburg created their own, alternative “correctional” system, engineering a steady stream of youth prosecutions for “staff assaults.”
According to the lawsuit, information Plaintiffs’ counsel obtained between June 16 and June 27, alleges there have been over 40 such charges brought against IYC Harrisburg youth for incidents from January 2016 through March 2017.
Those 40-plus charges, which sometimes charge the same young people more than once, resulted in some youth who had turned 18 years-old being sentenced to multiple years in the adult correctional system, the news release said.
Typically, DJJ internal discipline, not prosecution in the criminal justice system, addresses all but the most serious infractions. Harrisburg is currently the only place where these sort of routine prosecutions take place the news release said.
Camille Bennett, a lawyer with the ACLU representing the youth detained by DJJ said “Ending extended, isolated confinement was a critical step in fixing what is wrong with DJJ — but the Saline County State’s Attorney and a group of staff believe they know better than court-appointed experts and the court itself. This must be fixed.”
The suit alleges that without the intervention of the Court, IYC Harrisburg youth will continue to be thrust into the alternative punishment system created by the Saline County State’s Attorney, the Circuit Court of Saline County, and IYC Harrisburg staff, in which any youth who are old enough are fast-tracked into the Illinois Department of Corrections.
The lawsuit charges the DJJ to immediately develop and present a plan to address the ongoing practice of IYC Harrisburg staff pursuing charges against youth in cases in which the department itself does not pursue prosecution.
In the interim, it asks that any further placements of youth to IYC Harrisburg must be halted to minimize the risk of further harm.
Calls to the Saline County State’s Attorney’s Office were not returned before press time.