For Some Youths, ‘Minor’ Offenses Lead to Major Sentences
Seventeen-year-old Jaylan Banks punched a guard at the Illinois Youth Center at Harrisburg as they struggled over a bottle of body wash. David Hayes, 18, spat in a guard’s face. And 18-year-old Lavell Staples was accused of shoving a guard as he tried to force his way out of his room.
A few years ago, these incidents would have cost the teenagers their privileges, earned them a stint in solitary confinement or added time to their juvenile sentences. But these young men are among almost a dozen from the Harrisburg facility who now face substantial sentences in adult prison instead, a penalty even state officials call troubling and at odds with a court-ordered push to make the juvenile justice system more rehabilitative.
Staples began serving a four-year term last month. Hayes was sentenced to six years. And Banks received eight years.
Workers at the Harrisburg facility have sought more criminal charges for staff assaults over the past two years than employees at the state’s four other juvenile facilities combined, according to records and interviews. That includes another facility with about the same number of young offenders as Harrisburg but nearly double the number of staff assaults last year.
Since 2016, the Saline County state’s attorney’s office has pursued more than 40 criminal cases against youths at Harrisburg. Thirteen of the cases were dismissed and some are pending, but nearly a dozen young men have been convicted of felony battery charges and received sentences that range from three to eight years in prison, according to court records.
State officials and juvenile justice advocates say the prosecutions are fueled, in part, by employees’ resistance to the statewide reforms. At Harrisburg, a low-slung, secure facility just 30 minutes from the Kentucky border that this month held 112 young men, more than 90 percent of the staff is white—the highest at any of the state’s youth facilities—and close to 70 percent of the offenders are African-American, according to the department’s most recent available data.
What’s more, court records and juvenile justice department data show the prosecutions disproportionately affect young black men from Cook County, a disparity that troubles department officials who began transferring some Cook County youths out of Harrisburg earlier this year.
Top juvenile justice officials express unease about the prosecutions, saying they could conflict with their mission. Internal department documents describe some of the incidents as “minor.”
“I’m concerned about how these charges are undermining the Department of Juvenile Justice’s efforts at reform and rehabilitation,” said Kathleen Bankhead, the state’s independent juvenile ombudsman, a position created in 2014. “I’m also concerned about the fairness and the process of Saline County.”
Bankhead has spoken to a number of the young men charged in Saline County. Some of them, she said, told her they made only inadvertent contact with a guard or other staffer. Others said the incidents didn’t happen at all.
In nearly half of the cases, the youths had turned 18 while in custody, and were charged as adults and, if convicted, sent to the Illinois Department of Corrections. As a result, their felony convictions will follow them after prison—at job interviews, on rental applications and anywhere else a criminal record could be an obstacle.
Most of the other offenders were 17 or younger and their cases were handled in juvenile court.
Exact numbers are difficult to obtain because the department doesn’t keep records on how many youths face criminal charges while in custody. Saline County’s state’s attorney said he, too, doesn’t track the number of cases from the Harrisburg facility.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which monitors the juvenile justice department as part of a federal consent decree, said in July court filings the prosecutions were a “deliberate and concerted attack” on the reform efforts. The group has accused Harrisburg staff of creating an “alternative correctional system” to drive a steady flow of prosecutions for what the ACLU describes as “trivial” incidents.
In recent years, the department has adopted a number of changes to move from a more punitive approach to one that incorporates positive reinforcement and rewards. Officials rewrote the solitary confinement policy, banning its use as punishment, and are attempting to ensure that youths spend at least eight hours a day outside their rooms—either in school or in other supervised activities.
“I’ve never expected that this process was going to be easy or without mistakes and some resistance, but also (with) some surprising wins and surprising successes,” Heidi Mueller, the director of the juvenile justice department, said in an interview. “I’ve not seen it be easy for anyone.”
‘They Sent Me Down Here so They Can Throw Me Away.’
At 18, Lavell Staples had been in and out of the juvenile justice system for four years, first for marijuana charges and later for parole violations in connection with drug and other arrests. His time at Harrisburg was mixed: He earned his GED but also was cited for behavioral violations. Like most youths in Illinois’ juvenile justice system, Staples has a history of mental illness.
In a September interview, Staples sat on a steel stool inside the Saline County Jail. From behind the narrow glass partition, he picked up the thick black handset and recounted the January incident that landed him behind bars.
He said he had placed paper over the window of the door to his room to be alone and shut out the world. A guard doing room checks saw the window covered and told Staples to take down the paper so staff could monitor his well-being. When Staples refused, the guard entered the room and removed the paper.
Staples said he got up to leave and slid by the guard and out the door, then flipped over a table.
The guard, according to records, said Staples shoved him in the chest as he tried to force his way out.
That evening, Staples appeared in front of Harrisburg’s adjustment committee, standard practice when an offender violates policy. Staff members review the case and recommend sanctions that can range from an earlier curfew and the restriction of privileges to an extension of the offender’s sentence.
For Staples, the committee suggested extending his sentence by 180 days. Harrisburg’s superintendent recommended reducing the extension to 30 days.
Either option would have kept Staples in the juvenile justice system.
But the guard instead filed a report with the Harrisburg police. Within days, Staples was charged with aggravated battery to a peace officer, a felony.
After eight months of court hearings and continuances, Staples pleaded guilty. A judge sentenced him to four years in prison with the possibility that he could serve less time if the Department of Corrections accepted him to a boot camp. He learned last week he was not accepted.
He swapped out his room at the juvenile facility for a cell in a prison that holds close to 1,900 inmates and where, instead of being one of the oldest in the facility, he now is among the youngest. His fellow inmates at the Western Illinois Correctional Center include nearly 350 convicted murderers.
“If I didn’t catch this case, I would have been home already,” Staples said. “They sent me down here so they can throw me away.”
When a guard brought Jaylan Banks a bottle of cherry-scented body wash to use in the showers at Harrisburg, Banks reached for the bottle so he could smell it. As he and the guard struggled over it, Banks said, the guard yelled at him to let go, then pushed his head against a phone box on the wall. Banks hit the guard in the face to try to get free. He said he quickly stepped back and put his hands in the air.
The guard was bleeding from his nose and lip and sought medical treatment, records show.
The guard said Banks punched him three or four times, according to department records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The guards who came to his aid, records show, described Banks as “extremely combative,” saying he only calmed down after they threatened to use pepper spray.
Although Banks was 17 at the time, he was tried as an adult.
Banks grew up in institutions, bouncing from residential centers to psychiatric hospitals to group homes, said his mother, Shakira Cousett. He was 8 when the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services became involved with the family, she said, and he remains a ward of the state.
“Jaylan is a loving person,” Cousett said. “I know people who only know him on paper might not see that, but that’s more because of his mental health than anything criminal.”
He first entered the juvenile justice system at 14, his mother said, and has been locked up since he was 16 for armed robbery. Banks had two other charges against him—one for spitting on a guard at Harrisburg, another for hitting a staffer there—but they were dropped.
In August, Banks was sentenced to state prison in Sumner. In a recent interview there, he said he is no longer treated as an adolescent and is forced to cope more on his own.
His mother said she worries about his future once he’s released from prison.
“He’s starting out with a Class 2 felony,” she said. “Where do you go from there?”
The transfer of these young men from Harrisburg to adult prison conflicts with the mission of the juvenile justice department, which aims to rehabilitate the young people in its facilities and help them return to the community.
It is not supposed to be a launch pad for prison, even if some of the juvenile offenders call it “little DOC.”
“I think if a youth ends up charged and convicted of an adult felony, it means we haven’t done our job as well as I’d like us to,” Mueller said. “I consider that a failure.”
The department split off from adult corrections in 2006 and began implementing reform three years later. That effort gained urgency after the ACLU in 2012 sued the department for failing to provide adequate services or protect the youths in its custody. The department and ACLU agreed to a consent decree requiring the improvement of education and mental health treatment, the limitation of solitary confinement and adoption of a less punitive approach to dealing with behavioral issues.
Research shows young people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of solitary confinement, and that it can create or exacerbate mental health conditions. It has even been linked to suicide.
In 2015, the department ended the use of solitary as a punitive measure, though it still can be used for short periods if, for instance, a youth needs to cool down. That frustrated some staff at Harrisburg who believed the department was taking an important tool from them.
Youth Offender Population in Illinois Has Declined
Though the number of juvenile offenders in Illinois has been going down since 1999, the Department of Juvenile Justice has continued to dramatically cut the youth population in recent years. As part of reform efforts, the department now only accepts youths posing a significant public safety risk or those for whom community placement is not an option.
Note: Yearly counts are in fiscal years. Source: Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. (David Eads/ProPublica Illinois)
As part of the reforms, the department also cut its population by accepting only offenders who posed a significant public safety risk or for whom group homes or residential centers were not an option. A 2015 law to keep youths convicted of misdemeanors out of department custody similarly contributed to the population decline.
In the past seven years, the department’s population has dropped from about 1,000 to less than 400. Those who remain in custody, according to officials, tend to be the highest-risk and highest-need.
Part of the Job
Eddie Caumiant, regional director at AFSCME COUNCIL 31, the union that represents the guards at Harrisburg, said correctional officers understand assaults are part of the job. But that does not mean they should go unpunished. Some officers are struggling to adapt to the changes, Caumiant said, but remain committed to the work.
“It’s their right to seek justice and press charges,” he said.
The restrictions on solitary confinement are part of what Caumiant calls “a softer approach to incarcerated youth.” That, he said, has left guards feeling they can’t do their job safely or effectively.
“If you’re going to remove punishment, remove consequences within the system, there’s going to be a natural challenge to address those issues,” he said.
One guard at Harrisburg, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not have permission from the department, said guards do not think the department will act on the reports of staff assaults.
“Their way of handling it will be to not handle it,” he said. “People have to be responsible for their actions. It’s a dangerous environment. I don’t want to go to work and get hit. If I was at home and somebody hit me, I’d press charges.”
He said he would like to see additional training for guards and more programming for the youths. They can only play cards for so long, he said, before boredom leads to violence.
Department officials have met with staff and union leaders to find solutions to the conflict. But they stand by the reforms, saying they are better for the youths and reflect trends across the country.
“There are still and always have been very few instances where a youth intentionally walks up and strikes the staff,” Mueller said.
When that does happen, incidents are handled by a department investigator in addition to a committee in the facility. The superintendent decides whether to forward the case higher up in the department. Mueller ultimately determines if a case should be referred to prosecutors.
Time and again, Harrisburg staff have sidestepped department protocols and gone directly to police. By doing so, they essentially eliminated multiple layers of review that serve as backstops.
Harrisburg police said they don’t conduct independent investigations into incidents between guards and juvenile offenders. The Saline County state’s attorney said that he relies almost entirely on the investigations done by a designated supervisor at the facility.
The juvenile justice department only began in January to track the number of youths it referred for criminal charges while in custody. Since then, the department has sent four cases of staff assaults to the state’s attorney’s office, none of them from Harrisburg.