Connect & Follow Us

Go Back

Reconnecting the Pathways: How far have we come in creating a united and accountable system?

Christine Head
June 27, 2014
The juvenile justice system in Illinois has a rich history of contradictions.

In 1899, Chicago pioneered the first juvenile court in the United States under the premise that children were profoundly different than adults and could be rehabilitated. This innovation can arguably be considered one of the most lasting and powerful achievements of the Progressive Era.

More than one hundred years later, Illinois juvenile courts have garnered the attention of the nation, but for all the wrong reasons. The system has been riddled with issues ranging from racial and ethnic disparities, overcrowding, and, as of 2013, a skyrocketing rate of sexual assaults. As time has passed, it has become clear that there is a disconnect between the intent of the courts and their actual function.

In an effort to combat these systemic issues, in 2007 the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, the Association of Juvenile Justice Council, and other stakeholders convened the Connecting the Pathways conference in Springfield, Illinois to address the measures needed to improve the juvenile justice system. Though this event laid the foundation for a number of avenues for reform, change was slow moving. The recently held Re-Connecting the Pathways conference, the seven year follow-up event, aimed to pick up where its predecessor left off by giving leaders in reform the know-how necessary to recreate the system. 

As the LGBTQ Youth Task Force Coordinator of Health & Medicine’s Court Involved Youth Project, I had the opportunity to attend the conference and gave a presentation focusing on LGB/T issues, disproportionate minority contact (DMC), and racial disparities in the justice system. The event provided a great opportunity to bring stakeholders together to discuss these and other pressing issues facing our broken juvenile justice system, and I was particularly struck by the conference’s emphasis on providing effective tools.

My presentation focused on pathways that lead to the over representation of LGB/T youth of color in the juvenile justice system as well best practices for providing competent care. Though LGB/T comprise 15% of the detention population, there is very rarely training around sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) competence for detention and probation.

The inclusion of LGB/T youth of color in the programming of a general state conference, like Re-Connecting the Pathways, is a huge and progressive step towards positive system reform. Besides the growing call for SOGI competence training, attendees were given the opportunity to learn more about restorative practices in schools, trained on adultism and how it affects their work and, more importantly, were challenged to address the racism that plagues the system. Overall, the conference was able to effectively touch on major movements and faults in the system while attempting to bridge the gap between Cook County and our downstate colleagues.

That said, there were stumbling blocks that still need to be addressed. It was strikingly obvious that two key stakeholders were not present in our discussion: law enforcement and families of incarcerated youth.  Historically, these two groups have always been tough to reach but more efforts need to be made to make these convenings more accessible in order for policy change to be lasting.

Additionally, addressing our own biases still remains a point of contention. Though people were able to agree that racism plays a huge role in incarceration, making the final step and taking an introspective look at how we all contribute to racial and ethnic disparities has yet to be accomplished. 

Though we have a long way to go before we can confidently say they we have a healing and transformative system, it was clear that we are entering a moment in history where profound change is on the horizon. Leaders both at the local and state level have taken positions promising to promote the creation of places where youth can be transformed.

Only time will tell if they make good on their promises, but convening events like Re-Connecting the Pathways are important for providing accountability, revealing our contradictions, and laying the foundation for positive change.