There’s a new call to better protect children awaiting trial in Illinois during the COVID-19 outbreak. A number of organizations are expressing concern over what they call a lack of transparency and protections from the Illinois Supreme Court for the state’s juvenile-detention centers.
Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director with the John Howard Association, said many of these centers lock up children as young as 10 before trial.
“This is a really vulnerable population,” Vollen-Katz said. “And what this might be doing to their stress levels, their anxiety levels, particularly when they are separated from family and loved ones, is incredibly difficult and potentially dangerous to their mental health.”
The groups, including juvenile-justice and youth-advocacy organizations, sent a letter to the Illinois Supreme Court, requesting that juvenile courts be directed to release children at risk of COVID-19, stop new admissions to juvenile-detention placement facilities, and release young people being held for low-level offenses. Vollen-Katz noted these protections are in line with those already taken by the Department of Juvenile Justice for youths convicted of a crime.
Vollen-Katz contends these measures are needed to protect both the health of detained youths as well as those who work at juvenile-detention facilities. She said the pandemic is bringing to light the need to move away from the use of pre-trial detention.
“There are a lot of people that may be charged with a crime who do not pose a risk to anybody and can go on about their business until their case is resolved,” she said. “And that will not only maintain public safety but – in this instance – really go a long way towards our public health outcomes.”
The Illinois Supreme Court has suspended the right to a speedy trial as part of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which Vollen-Katz said makes it is even more critical to ensure detention is used as a last resort. This is the second letter sent demanding better emergency protections for juvenile-detention facilities during the crisis.
More information is available at JJustice.org.