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The revolving door of incarceration: A crisis for our youth

Recidivism rates among formerly incarcerated youth have reached alarming levels, posing a significant challenge for our society. Upon release from detention centers around the country, youth often find themselves caught in a revolving door of incarceration, perpetuating a cycle of crime and hindering their successful reintegration into society. Oftentimes, a substantial number of young individuals remain incarcerated for extended durations, eventually landing in correctional facilities designed for adults. 

Within one year of their release, 24% of juveniles released from prison nationwide are reincarcerated. Champaign County is not immune to this crisis; in fact, the situation here is critical. According to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, 48% of youth were recommitted to Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center within three years following their release. Moreover, 40% of Illinois juvenile offenders ended up in adult prison for crimes committed by the time they reached the age of 25. These local statistics paint a disheartening picture of the challenges faced by our youth and the urgent need for targeted interventions within our community. 

The impact of this cycle of incarceration goes far beyond individual lives. The entire community bears the burden of repeated incarcerations, incurring expenses related to detention, court proceedings, and legal representation. Furthermore, this disrupts the stability of families and neighborhoods, erodes trust in the justice system, and generates a sense of unease within communities. 

Champaign County urgently needs effective measures to break this cycle and provide meaningful support for the successful reintegration of these young individuals into society. 

The system has failed to support our incarcerated youth. Rather than focusing on punishment and isolation, we must prioritize education and rehabilitation. We need to ensure that those who are formerly incarcerated are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to thrive in a world that is constantly changing. By offering education, vocational training, and counseling services to youth while they are in detention facilities, we can support these young people while moving to foster a more equitable and inclusive community. 

To understand the local context, I reached out to Daryl Jackson, a former juvenile probation officer with years of experience working directly with incarcerated youth in Champaign County. He highlighted a significant issue within our community: the detrimental quality of home environments. Jackson shared that while incarcerated youth are given opportunities to engage in different programs and show a genuine desire to change for the better, their return to harmful family environments often perpetuates the same destructive behaviors. Jackson explained that “in the back of the kids mind, there’s always a doubt that whatever you tell them is irrelevant because their parents are still the same.” When an individual finds themselves trapped in this continuous cycle within the system, it becomes akin to a revolving door. “If you get one out of 100 to change, you’re lucky,” Jackson told me. 

One prominent factor that impacts youth in Champaign County is poverty. Statistics show that poverty is especially prevalent in the northern and eastern areas of Champaign-Urbana. This issue is intertwined with the discriminatory practice of redlining, where essential services are denied to individuals living in neighborhoods deemed “risky” for investment. These neighborhoods typically comprise a substantial population of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as low-income residents. The housing history of C-U reveals a troubling pattern characterized by racially biased covenants and segregated housing with unequal access and resources. In disadvantaged areas, poverty rates exceed the county average of 18.7%, with some neighborhoods experiencing rates as high as 40%. The localized nature of poverty in the county calls for tailored interventions that address the specific needs of these disadvantaged communities. By continuing to support community-based initiatives such as DREAAM and Champaign County Coalition, we can provide targeted support to break the cycle of reincarceration and uplift those most at risk. 

Another crucial aspect to consider is the role of racial and ethnic disparities within the criminal justice system. In Champaign County, Black youth, for instance, make up only 19% of the county’s population but account for nearly 60% of the detained youth population. Racism and systemic inequities both in and outside the criminal justice system hinder the potential for rehabilitation and successful reintegration. It is important to understand that things won’t change drastically unless we continue to dismantle racism and white supremacist institutions on a larger scale. 

In the realm of education, C-U’s status as a hub for higher learning presents a unique opportunity for collaboration and support. With the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Parkland College, forging partnerships to provide mentoring programs, academic support, and job training initiatives should become a tangible goal. For example, the Education Justice Project is an initiative that offers upper-division University of Illinois courses and extracurricular activities to people at Danville Correctional Center. Moreover, EJP hosts programs on the U of I campus ranging from Community Anti-Violence Education to a Mindfulness Discussion Group. By leveraging the resources, expertise, and passion of these institutions, we can empower incarcerated youth with the tools they need to break free from the cycle of reincarceration and unlock their full potential. 

A potential solution could be more youth incarceration alternative programs, such as this one in San Francisco. One promising solution specific to C-U, however, is the establishment of community-based mentorship programs, such as the Youth Assessment Center. Evidence indicates that connecting incarcerated youth with caring mentors from within the community is quite effective in reducing recidivism and promoting successful transitions out of juvenile justice systems. 

First Followers CU is an organization that offers a range of programs and services tailored to the specific challenges faced by individuals reintegrating into society after incarceration. Their mission is to empower and uplift those impacted by the criminal justice system, providing them with the necessary resources and support to break the cycle of reincarceration. They work with formerly incarcerated people of all ages, including those who were imprisoned as minors and released as adults.

I spoke with Tim, a young man who returned home after being released from prison in 2020. He faced a two-year struggle in finding a sense of purpose and direction in his life. Similar to many other young adults who have recently been released from the justice system, Tim was uncertain about the path he should take. In 2022, he connected with First Followers and was placed in a workforce development program for emerging adults called GoMAD (Make A Difference), a transition house for people coming home from prison. “Words couldn’t explain the impact First Followers had on me,” said Tim. Over the past year, he has achieved significant milestones, including obtaining his high school diploma, gaining construction skills, and most importantly, being able to guide young people towards a bright future. 

I was intrigued to hear Tim’s perspective on how the community can contribute to addressing the issue of recidivism. He emphasized that while many people look to politicians for help, “the real solution starts with us.” Tim says that you can’t just tell someone to get a job unless you can show them a way. He believes that the community should take an active role in providing employment opportunities, mentorship programs, and support systems to individuals who have been incarcerated. Tim’s view highlights the importance of collective responsibility and empowering individuals with practical solutions rather than relying solely on external sources for change. 

Community involvement is paramount in breaking the cycle of incarceration. Organizations like First Followers CU are already making a significant impact by offering mentorship programs and resources to individuals reintegrating into society. As a community, we should continue to support and expand such initiatives, encouraging more community members to step forward as mentors and guides for those who have been incarcerated. By creating a strong support network and providing practical solutions, we can empower individuals and help them find a sense of purpose and direction in their lives. 

I believe it’s essential for us as community members to challenge our own biases and preconceptions about the justice system and those who have been incarcerated. It is only through empathy, understanding, and a willingness to give individuals a second chance that we can truly break the revolving door of incarceration. By embracing a restorative justice approach that focuses on rehabilitation, redemption, and community reintegration, we can foster an environment of healing and transformation. 

Addressing the revolving door of incarceration and recidivism in Champaign County will require a comprehensive and community-driven approach. Some of these programs and organizations already exist, but it’s clear that more support and development are necessary. I strongly believe that by taking collective responsibility and working together, we can pave the way for a brighter future for our community and ensure that every young person has the opportunity to thrive.

Katha Patel is a third year pre-law student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She is originally from the Bay Area, where she enjoys snowboarding, learning new languages, and working with kids.