Minor offenses, minor offenders, massive jail time: Illinois’s nightmarish juvenile system


The Illinois Youth Center at Harrisburg functions as a high school for felons. And its staff seems to believe all who attend should graduate.

Three recent inmates spent their 18th birthdays in adult prisons or in the funnel that ends there. There could be many more.

The teens committed crimes or wouldn’t be in Harrisburg already. But they’re going to adult prisons because of conflicts with the guards there.

One 17-year-old drew eight years as an adult for punching a guard. They fought over a soap bottle. Another spat in a correctional officer’s face and caught a six-year adult term. Another who shoved past a guard as he tried to force his way out of his room received four.

Punishment exceeding crime?

Authorities need to respond, of course. The question faced by Illinois’s justice system is whether the violations merit years in jail. Until recently, these would have led to loss of privileges or a longer juvenile sentences. But now courts regularly try teenagers as adults for offenses committed in a youth center.

Illinois officials are reacting to these reports. Some believe they violate a court order requiring the juvenile justice system to focus on rehabilitation.

Although youth center employees have the right to seek criminal charges against detainees, they generally don’t. At least, they don’t as frequently as the Harrisburg guards do. Since 2015, more charges came from Harrisburg than the other four Illinois youth centers combined. Adjusting data to account for number of residents or number of staff assaults handled without involving the courts makes Harrisburg’s guards look even more snowflake-y.

That’s not the only issue Harrisburg guards face. Nine out of ten are white. But two-thirds of detainees are black. The guards are local to the small town and many of their charges come from Chicago. That, however, isn’t the portrayal presented by the American Civil Liberties Union’s narrative.

The ACLU calls the cases a “deliberate and concerted attack” on reform efforts. It accuses Harrisburg staff of creating an “alternative” prison system to drive “trivial” cases.