Detention Alternatives

Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission
for Calendar Years 2007 and 2008

February 10, 2009


Every year, tens of thousands of youth are inappropriately or unnecessarily detained in dangerous, overcrowded detention centers increasing their risk of recidivism, severing fragile ties to families and schools, and costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Despite sensationalized headlines about isolated incidents, most detained youth are charged with non-violent offenses or rule violations. Detention, which generally occurs before a delinquency finding (adjudication), is intended for youth who pose a significant risk of re-offending or fleeing the juvenile court's jurisdiction. However, data shows that two-thirds of detained youth are charged with property or public order offenses and/or technical probation violations or status offenses3.

Many youth in Illinois end up in secure detention for reasons unrelated to the need for public safety or because the youth will fail to reappear in court: inability to distinguish which youth pose serious risks; adults in the juvenile court system being angry or frustrated with the youth and want to "teach the youth a lesson" or "get their attention"; no parent is available at home; system processing inefficiencies have delayed their cases; and other systems (schools or mental health for example) can't provide appropriate services.

Detention is not an equal opportunity program; it disproportionately impacts the most disadvantaged youth and communities. About two-thirds of those detained are youth of color, and virtually all of the increased use of detention is due to greatly increased rates of detention for African-American and Latino youth4. In Illinois, Detention Screening Instruments vary from institution to institution. This causes local disparities in criteria resulting in unfair and inconsistent treatment of youth from one county to another, and often contributes to the disproportionate use of secure detention for youth of color. Of the youth held in secure detention from 1/1/2006 through 12/31/2007 (29,289 youth) 67 percent were either African American or Hispanic (eJMIS 2008).

Overall, detention is generally harmful to youth and should be used as a last resort. Youth detained prior to their detention hearing are more likely to be formally charged, more likely to be adjudicated delinquent and more likely to be incarcerated or placed out-of-home5. Detention is a stronger predictor of recidivism than many traditional risk factors, such as gang involvement, weapons, possession, or family dysfunction. Detained youth become disconnected from their schools and treatment programs, and underlying health and mental conditions are likely to worsen as a result of confinement.

A recently completed poll commissioned by the Center for Children's Law and Policy found that the public supports redirecting government funds from incarceration to counseling, education and job training programs for youth offenders. The public views the provision of treatment and services as more effective ways of rehabilitating youth than incarceration. More than 70% of the general public agrees that incarcerating youthful offenders without rehabilitation is the same as giving up on them.

The national Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative was begun by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 1992, as a pilot project in three selected sites - Multnomah County, Oregon; Santa Cruz, California; and Cook County, Illinois. The goal of JDAI is to reduce the inappropriate and unnecessary use of secure detention for youth that do not pose a threat to public safety or are at risk of missing their court appearance date. Eight core strategies guide the initiative, including: local stakeholder responsibility and authority to improve the local juvenile justice system; data driven decision making; objective criteria for detention; a continuum of community-based alternatives to detention; expedited case processing of juveniles; minimization of special detention cases; high standards for conditions of confinement; and minimization of racial/ethnic disparities in detention. Results of JDAI are lowered detention populations, enhanced public safety due to youth being held accountable, and reduced costs to tax payers because community-based alternatives are less expensive than the average of $120 per day to hold a youth in secure detention.

Building on the success Cook County experienced in reducing its detention population from over 800 youth to less than 500 by implementing JDAI principles, the IJJC sought to expand the program to other parts of Illinois. Working in partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation the IJJC selected a few sites throughout the state that were interested in reducing their reliance on secure detention. Stakeholders in each county came together and created a plan for reducing the unique confinement issues they faced. The IJJC provided funding for programmatic efforts and the Foundation provided technical assistance and support. Yearly conferences were held at which counties showcased their efforts and invited new sites to join the effort. Special emphasis was placed on developing systemic change that would outlast programmatic efforts.

IJJC Action and Recommendations


  • The Commission is represented on the IJDAI Partners Group and provides ongoing financial support for the Partners Group ($25,000 per year). The Commission also provides funding for a part-time JDAI statewide coordinator position.
  • Eleven counties had previously received grant funding from the Commission to implement the principles of JDAI. Although there is no specific JDAI funding, 27 counties are actively practicing the principles of JDAI.
  • The partnership between IJDAI and Redeploy Illinois has been strengthened. Those jurisdictions participating in Redeploy Illinois are being challenged to examine their practices against the core principles of JDAI especially the practice of utilizing secure detention.
  • The Commission has worked closely with the Partners Group to reduce DMC and the institutionalization of status offenders.
  • The Partner's Group is promoting the benefits of appropriate detention to non-JDAI counties that have a Juvenile Detention Center. It is using data on number of commitments, average daily population, and average length of stay to target counties and determine priority.
  • The Partner's Group is providing outreach and education to the judiciary, particularly to newly elected judges, as well as State's Attorneys.
  • The Partner's Group is providing technical assistance and support, mentoring and training opportunities to the sites to encourage use of evidence-based practices and on-going local examination of juvenile justice system practices.
  • In fiscal year 2008 the Commission allocated $35,000 to the Partners Group to sponsor a portion of the "Connecting the Pathways" Conference.


  • The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts should develop and implement a standardized state-wide Detention Screening Instrument.
  • Incentives should be instituted to discourage the use of secure detention and encourage community-based services for at-risk youth.

3 The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative: A Successful Approach to Comprehensive Reform, 2007. Baltimore, MD. Page 1. Available from:

4 Ibid. p. 2.

5 Ibid.