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Transforming Juvenile Justice: Lawyers Making A Difference
A look at three lawyers who are helping to create a more fair, effective, and rational juvenile justice system in Illinois, often by starting in their own communities.
Last month's President's Page posed this question: What would the Illinois juvenile justice system look like if we knew our own children would go through it? How hard would we work to make sure it recognizes that youth are different from adults? Would we respond to troubled youth with detention and incarceration or with community-based services and support? To what lengths would we go to build a justice system that focuses less on punishment and more on restoring victims and appropriate accountability? If we knew our own children would go through the juvenile justice system, who among us would rest until we had fulfilled our obligation to help all young people become healthy, productive members of Illinois communities?
This month, we'd like to feature three lawyers who are working to make this vision of a fair, effective, and rational juvenile justice system a reality for all Illinois communities. They live and work in different parts of the state and play a wide variety of roles within and outside our justice system. But all are focused on community safety, rehabilitation, and support of youth in conflict with the law through fair, effective juvenile justice policies and practices. They deserve our thanks and should be our inspiration. We can adapt and apply their work in our own communities.
Retired Chief Judge George Timberlake of southern Jefferson County is as likely to recall presiding over difficult cases in which he simply couldn't solve the problems of the youth and families before him as he is to recount a success. It was partly these challenging experiences in juvenile court that shaped his deep belief in the need to involve and strengthen communities as well as to rely upon the law to ensure that vulnerable youth and families have meaningful opportunities for safe, healthy lives. He turned to the Second Judicial Circuit's Juvenile Justice Council as a means of developing community partnerships, obtaining and leveraging resources, sharing information, and collaborating to improve outcomes for court-involved young people.
Today, Judge Timberlake applies his decades of experience to a variety of juvenile justice system improvement efforts. He is a coordinating council member for the Illinois Models for Change initiative (funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation), which offers a range of state and local models for improved juvenile justice policy and practice. He also serves on the board of Redeploy Illinois, a state-funded program that has clearly demonstrated the need for and benefits of working with youth who would otherwise be committed to one of the state's juvenile facilities, all at dramatically lower costs and without compromising public safety.
In 2010, Judge Timberlake undertook a new role as chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, which is convened under both federal and state law and charged with administering the state's federal juvenile justice funds. The commission also advises the Governor, General Assembly, and policymakers on juvenile justice issues. Appointed the chair of a newly constituted commission in January 2010, Judge Timberlake sees it as a strong voice for the kinds of juvenile justice policies that recognize the capacity of youth to grow and become healthy community members.
Julie Biehl's commitment to zealous advocacy and due process for youth has led her to undertake a wide range of roles over the years. In addition to being a member of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, she served as the first director of the Cook County Juvenile Court Clinic and is now director of the Children and Family Justice Center of Northwestern University School of Law.
In this capacity, she coordinates the Illinois Models for Change Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network and the Models for Change Juvenile Justice/Mental Health Action Network. She also created Project Off the Record, which provides training and support for pro bono attorneys representing young adults who have earned eligibility for removal from sex offender registries on which they were placed, often inappropriately, as youth.
In 2010, seeking fundamental changes to the way the state cares for youth in its custody, she agreed to undertake leadership of the Commission's parole data study. Mandated by state law, the study will be a comprehensive analysis of the state's juvenile parole processes and the outcomes it achieves for youth and the communities to which they return following incarceration in one of the state's eight youth prisons.
As head of the study, she marshaled practicing attorneys, other commission members, and a team of Northwestern University law students 1) to research the laws of Illinois and other states governing the commitment, release, and aftercare of youth in state custody, 2) to conduct a review of master files of incarcerated youth, 3) to observe parole hearings first-hand, and 4) to analyze a staggering amount of information and data on youth experiences in the "deep end" of our juvenile justice system. Due for release in early 2011, the study is expected not only to guide the commission's efforts to improve aftercare for youth, but also to shape the state's reentry law and policy for years to come.
As state's attorney of Ogle County, Ben Roe expresses his juvenile justice policy clearly and succinctly: His charge as a prosecutor to keep his community safe requires him to rethink so-called "tough on crime" strategies and pursue "smart on crime" approaches instead. This has inspired Roe to lead Ogle County's efforts to strengthen and expand the work of the local Juvenile Justice Council, which relies upon traditional and nontraditional partnerships in the community, effective and appropriate use of law enforcement data, and enhanced restorative justice approaches to youth crime.
Roe is quick to acknowledge other local leaders, such as associate judge Kathleen Kauffmann, who have played critical leadership roles in bringing together local juvenile justice system stakeholders and creating a focus on juvenile justice issues. The council is proof that collaborative, community-based approaches to juvenile justice issues work. It facilitated implementation of screening and assessment of youth in conflict with the law for underlying mental health and other needs, as well as the use of that information to divert youth from prosecution whenever possible while protecting youth confidentiality and preserving public safety.
Council members have also used this aggregate information and other new sources of shared data to guide cross-system collaboration, maximize the use of available resources, and create new programming and support for at-risk youth. They have forged partnerships with schools and created new alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, which provide supervision and support to youth who would otherwise be out on the streets.
Because of these efforts, more than 70 percent of Ogle County cases are diverted from formal system involvement, public safety is maintained, and youth and families receive the community-based support and services they need. These and other Ogle County approaches, led by lawyers such as Ben Roe and Judge Kathleen Kauffmann, provide clear examples that collaboration, intentionality, and leadership can make all the differences for communities and young people.
Many other lawyers are doing important work to improve our juvenile justice system, and we will highlight some of them as we go forward. The best thanks we can give them is to follow their example in our own communities. n
Thank you to Lisa Jacobs for alerting the legal community and the public about the lawyers and judges who are making a difference and noting where successful programs providing alternatives to incarceration have been initiated and are working. MDH.
Lisa Jacobs is program manager for Models for Change, a juvenile justice reform effort funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and administered by Loyola University School of Law.