woman standing in front of tree

By Sarah Herning | Guest Writer

Sarah Herning is an associate director with Juvenile Justice Ministry Chicago. She loves working with high schoolers in and out of the system and works to make the Chicago area a better place for young returning citizens.

One scene from my years volunteering at a youth prison haunts my memory: a row of Black and Latino teens lined up against the wall, shackled, after emerging from a strip search. It’s been 400 years, and there are still roughly two million Black bodies in shackles on American soil. The justice system rattles with the trappings of slavery.

America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 655 incarcerated folks per 100,000 — 1.7 times that of Russia, over 5 times more than China, and almost 20 times the incarceration rate in India

This mass incarceration disproportionately impacts BIPOC communities. In fact, at the time The New Jim Crow was published, the US imprisoned more of its Black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. These statistics offer a chilling indictment of the US justice system.

The juvenile justice system mirrors the imbalance of the adult prison system. While Black and white youth commit petty crime at roughly the same level, with white youth using drugs at a higher rate than Black youth, white youth face a 1 in 13 chance of being locked up, but Black youth face a 1 in 4 chance. 

Illinois is no different: The vast majority of youth in IDJJ custody were Black or Brown. Systemic racism defines the contours of the juvenile justice system.

Source: MST Services

Trauma Worse Than a War Veteran’s

Most youth who commit serious crimes do so from a place of extreme trauma. 95% of prisoners exit correctional facilities with untreated trauma due to adverse childhood experiences, the chronic stress of poverty, and the additional trauma of incarceration. In fact, incarcerated teens have even higher rates of PTSD than Iraq veterans. 

This ongoing trauma can lead to a myriad of mental health challenges for teens, as it would for anyone. 71.5% of youth in IDJJ custody have at least three co-occurring mental health disorders. 

Does incarceration address these underlying systemic causes of racism and inequality, and does it heal trauma? No and no. In fact, it makes things worse. While incarceration is sometimes necessary, the ways in which our society addresses crime must change.

Photo by WoodysMedia on Pexels.com

But There’s Good News! 

That’s where restorative justice comes in. UNICEF defines restorative justice as “an approach in which the victim/survivor and offender, and in some cases other persons affected by a crime, ‘participate actively together in the resolution of matters arising from the crime, generally with the help of a facilitator’.” 

Allow me to explain: Many people misconstrue restorative justice as letting those who commit crimes off easy. On the contrary, restorative justice offers greater accountability than punitive justice. This benefits not only perpetrators but also victims. 

One study found that those victims and community members who participated in restorative justice practices felt more satisfaction than those whose cases went through traditional courts, and overall they had greater perceptions of fairness. 

While our current justice system treats those who commit crimes as problems to be eliminated and gives no thought to the circumstances that produce crime, restorative justice seeks to heal relationships and restore what has been broken.

Photo by Barik5ive on Pexels.com

Illinois Reforms in the Pipeline

Although the anecdotes and statistics above paint a bleak picture, change is coming, especially as the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice embraces more restorative justice practices.

Announcing a wave of reforms in the juvenile justice system, Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton said, The winds of change are beginning to blow, and a new wave of reform and good trouble is gathering.” 

Illinois has vowed to close all large youth prisons within the next four years and shift to smaller, more home-like facilities. IDJJ has dramatically decreased the number of youth in custody over the past few years and also announced plans to transfer much of their funding from incarceration to victim services. These proposals could be the first steps on the road to restoring true justice to Illinois youth.

Photo by Jennifer Enujiugha on Pexels.com

A very different scene played out in the youth prison last month. Once again, a row of teenagers lined up against a wall, this time dressed in suits and formalwear, in front of a balloon arch, to take a photo at their homecoming dance. 

This first-time event was a snapshot of justice that restores, justice that recognizes the humanity in youth who have committed crimes and aims to remind them daily of their inherent dignity and of the full lives they can live.

Everyday Actions

Politicians have set some big goals. Let’s buckle our seatbelts and see to it that Illinois delivers on all it has promised. Let’s ensure that the state continues to center the voices of incarcerated youth and their families as well as communities of color most impacted by a twisted justice system.

What can little people like you and me do in the face of such big issues? I’m still learning everyday, but here are a few ideas:

Pray: Jesus came to set the captives free, but it is always a spiritual battle. 

Listen to and and learn from the voices of formerly incarcerated youth, this press conference, the Lieutenant Governor’s Podcast, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Rethinking Incarceration by Dominique DuBois Gilliard, and the documentary 13th (available fully on YouTube, thanks to Netflix).

Advocate: Get advocacy alerts from Prison Fellowship or Illinois-specific prison reform alerts.

Practice restorative justice in your own life. Do you know someone coming out of prison? Check up on them. Mentor a teenager you know. Tutor a child in e-learning. Is there a broken relationship in your life that you can restore? A hard conversation that you need to have? Pray about it… and then go do it! 

3 thoughts on “Unshackling the juvenile justice system

  1. Sarah’s article on restorative justice is honest, thought-provoking, and hopeful. Reform has got to start with us . Caring for one another’s physical, mental, & spiritual needs is a call to action for us all. It’s not just “the right thing to do”, it’s biblical. After all, hasn’t God given us lots of chances too? Over & over God forgives, restores, & builds us back up again. We need to go & do likewise.


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