Task Force Recommends Prison Alternatives for Youth with Mental Health Conditions

20%+ of youth arrested or jailed in IL live w/serious mental health conditions - task force recommends 14 action steps for diversion from prison Tweet This

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Illinois’ criminal justice system reports nearly 30,000 youth arrests and 11,000 youth admissions to local jails each year.

Research consistently suggests that about 70% of these youth meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental health condition. At least 20% live with a serious mental health condition such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression that severely impairs their ability to function.

The vast majority of youth with mental health conditions are arrested for property offenses and probation/parole violations. Changing our response could not only improve outcomes for those young people—preventing them from cycling through the jails, probation offices, courts and prisons of a system ill-equipped to provide necessary treatment—but also allow Illinois to focus attention on violent offenders and improve public safety.

“In Illinois and throughout the country, we’re learning more about effective youth development for those with mental health conditions and what puts them on the right path to becoming valued assets in our communities.”

In 2017, a state statute created the Illinois Mental Health Opportunities for Youth Diversion Task Force to develop an action plan for diversion programs aimed at youth living with mental health conditions. Quinn Rallins, program director of the Illinois Justice Project, was appointed to co-chair the task force.

Released last week, their report Stemming the Tide: Diverting Youth with Mental Health Conditions from the Illinois Juvenile Justice System identifies 14 solutions that help keep youth with mental health conditions out of jails and prisons.

The report recommends the following action steps:


Community Diversion from the Justice System

Illinois should:

  • Improve mental health screenings for early identification of youth at risk of mental health conditions
  • Invest in early intervention for serious mental health conditions and maximize Medicaid and private insurance benefits
  • Expand screening and provide adequate funding for the Illinois Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Services program, a statewide network of qualified professionals responding 24/7 to youth and families in crisis
  • Provide training to help community members recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions and identify resources for services and treatment

Initial Contact with Law Enforcement & Detention

Illinois should:

  • Encourage training and expand use of Crisis Intervention Teams to improve the outcomes of interactions between law enforcement and individuals living with mental illness
  • Implement a diversion program that avoids the use of arrests for misdemeanor offenses committed by youth living with mental health conditions
  • Adopt best practices to assess the mental health of youth at arrest
  • Create a pilot project to evaluate effectiveness of police releasing youth through “station adjustments” as an alternative to referring the case to juvenile court

Juvenile Court

Illinois should:

  • Expand the use of juvenile mental health courts to connect youth with support services and appropriate treatment

Reentry to Community After Incarceration

To help youth returning from prison succeed, Illinois should:

  • Restore funding for the Mental Health Juvenile Justice Program, which contracts with community mental health agencies to provide services to improve the clinical condition of those youth
  • Ensure eligible returning youth are enrolled in Medicaid before their release
  • Make certain there is no interruption in services and needed medication after release
  • Make certain returning youth avoid homelessness by helping them secure housing and income upon release
  • Develop a case management system to track not just recidivism rates, but also data to inform taxpayers about whether their dollars are protecting public safety and helping youth become crime-free and productive adults

“In Illinois and throughout the country, we’re learning more about effective youth development for those with mental health conditions and what puts them on the right path to becoming valued assets in our communities,” the report states. “We must focus on putting youth with mental health conditions on the road to recovery, a road that helps them prevent further contact with the justice system and return to school, work and family.”

Task force members include state legislators, representatives of law enforcement and mental health service providers. Their recommendations are intended to help institutions and individuals across the criminal justice system make informed and rational policy decisions, resulting in long-term, effective crime reduction, fair and equitable treatment, decreased recidivism and cost savings to taxpayers that will be reinvested in communities.

The Illinois Justice Project, a supporting organization of The Chicago Community Trust, engages in criminal justice reform efforts that promote policies to reduce recidivism among youths and adults, and make our communities safer.

You can read and download the complete report at