Cook County Juvenile Detention Facility & Court.
Cook County Juvenile Detention Facility & Court (Zol87/flickr)

A BGA Policy analysis of the 16 county detention centers across Illinois has found that only three successfully have completed audits mandated by federal law to enforce protections against sexual assault. Analysis of those audits, policy manuals and other data provided to BGA Policy shows that in the wake of blowback at the Cook County facility over use of room confinement, that disciplinary action is still commonly used in many facilities, with some confining youth for over 24 hours at a time. 

Information about just how often room confinement is used, and its impact on the juvenile detainees, remains shrouded, however, by an exemption in the state’s FOIA law that allows the detention centers to deny the public access to its records– because they fall under the jurisdiction of the judicial branch. The exemption includes data from mandated audits, policy manuals, training materials and other records.

BGA Policy, which is leading the Court Transparency Coalition seeking to make court records subject to FOIA, points to this denial of access to information about juvenile detention centers as an alarming example of why the judicial branch should not be exempt from Illinois’ law granting access to public records.

Lack of information access through FOIA makes it significantly more difficult for the public to know about any reported cases of abuse, misconduct and other potential problems at the county detention centers. That denial of access makes it difficult to ensure that detained children are safe and that staff and administrators are kept accountable for conditions at the centers. 

Following this analysis, BGA Policy has the following recommendations to improve oversight of the county detention centers, and the conditions within them:

  • Add the Judicial Branch to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act;
  • Mandate all county detention centers use the same definitions for terms such as: room confinement, strip search, physical restraint, etc. to allow for easier comparison across detention centers;
  • All county detention centers must conform to the county detention standards;
  • Maintain a website for the public to access data from the county detention centers that cover: use of room confinement, use of force, strip searches, as well as all other uses of discipline and data to ensure compliance with the county detention standards.

Understanding the Juvenile Justice System

Illinois’ 16 county detention centers play a role in the juvenile justice system similar to jails in the adult criminal justice system. Not every arrest leads to a minor being sent to a detention center, however, and one of three scenarios can play out. Police officers can make a note of the arrest but send the child home, an action called a “station adjustment,” which can only happen to a youth a fixed number of times. In other cases, a police officer may believe detention is warranted, and in this case a point system is used, with the resulting score determining if detention is needed. And finally, detention is automatic for a handful of specific crimes. 

Children who are to be detained are sent to  county detention centers while awaiting trial – a period that typically ranges from 1 to 30 days. Eighteen percent of those admitted from January 1, 2021 through December 31, 2021 were held in a county detention center for over 30 days according to a report by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission 

Under the current lack of transparency, the public only has access to information about the detention centers in two scenarios:  either from periodic inspections and audits, or only after concerns have been raised by those within the juvenile justice system itself. 

One recent example of such an exceptional case is the concerns about room confinement that  led Chief Judge Tim Evans to appoint the Blue Ribbon Committee that found the county detention center in Cook County to be “isolating and deprivational.” 

Understanding the conditions within the juvenile detention centers is of the utmost importance because, as the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled, children are different from adults because they are still developing and therefore need age-appropriate treatment. Youth staying at the detention centers can be as young as 12 years old. Andrea Lubelfeld, Chief of Juvenile Division in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, told BGA Policy that children who stay at the county detention centers often are suffering from trauma and violence in their community, which diminishes their hope for a productive future. 

Of the many rules and regulations that county detention centers must follow, this analysis focuses on two that are important for making sure children are safe while staying at the detention centers, and that the centers maintain an environment conducive to rehabilitation. The two sets of rules are the federal Prison Rape and Elimination Act  and the county detention standards.


Juvenile detention centers are required to be in compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act,  and to undergo audits authenticating that compliance. Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003, PREA is intended to end “rape in all types of correctional facilities.” BGA Policy sent a FOIA request to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, which falls under the executive branch, and is therefore subject to FOIA, and found that only three of the 16 juvenile detention centers in Illinois have completed a PREA audit. A fourth facility stated an audit is scheduled in 2023, and Cook County has a PREA Audit available that covers years 2019 to 2021.

For the facilities that have not completed a PREA audit, inspection reports show varying levels of compliance. The new county detention standards include multiple requirements from PREA, such as conducting a PREA assessment of youth within 72 hours of arrival, and conduct criminal background checks on employees, employ someone as a PREA coordinator, make youth aware of PREA, and allow youth to contact a third-party to make reports of sexual abuse or harrassment.

The PREA assessment is intended to assess the risk of a youth being subjected to sexual abuse or harrassment. It requires reporting items such as; “prior sexual victimization,” LQBTQ+ identification or “gender nonconforming appearance,” current charges and offense history, and “youth’s own perception of vulnerability.” It must be completed within 72 hours of admittance, but inspectors noted that seven of the 15 facilities they inspected lacked adequate assessments for risk of victimization.

The new county detention standards also include requirements from PREA that all new employees must have a background check which includes checking “child abuse registries,” and that all existing employees must have a follow-up background check every five years. Auditors found three facilities that were not meeting this standard. 

Facilities are supposed to have a PREA coordinator who is responsible for keeping the detention center PREA compliant. Their duties include orientating both staff and youth held in the facilities to PREA. Inspector reports show three facilities without a PREA coordinator. In six facilities some or all of the youth were unaware of PREA. 

In two facilities there was no third party for youth to call to make a report of sexual harassment or abuse, and in a third facility auditors wrote that the facility lacked a specific PREA policy for responding to either reports or suspicion of sexual victimization. Auditors went on to say the facility also has no PREA orientation for youth or any mention of PREA in the youth handbook. 

Although data is hard to access, sexual misconduct is known to happen in these facilities. County detention centers are allowed to share data with those who request it, often upon approval of the Chief Judge that oversees that facility as discussed more in depth below, four facilities provided some data to BGA Policy. The McLean County facility provided an incident report log that contained three separate occurrences of sexual misconduct that happened in 2022. McLean County is a 26-bed facility, with its inspection report stating the number of residents range from 13 to 15 per month. McLean was one of the facilities where inspectors reported none of the resident were familiar with PREA, and there was no neutral third party to whom residents could report sexual abuse or harrassment. 


As of January 31, 2023, 15 of the 16 county detention centers have made their inspection reports available online. The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice handles these inspections and compares the practices in each facility to the practices outlined in the county detention standards. These standards became effective in June of 2021, the first update of the requirements  since 1988, and are meant to provide “minimum standards that reflect current practices.”

Within the 15 reports available, only four facilities were found in full compliance with the county detention standards; six were found to be conducting strip searches of youth upon intake, five were found by inspectors to have poor or no mental health services for residents. Eight youth detention facilities, including Cook County’s, were found to use room confinement extensively – often 24 and more hours at a time.

Without access to these institutions via FOIA the public cannot see policy and procedure manuals, training materials, or data and records from them. Instead, audits and inspections are often the only way the public can gain information about what is happening within the walls of these facilities. While the audits and inspection reports are available to the public, and the PREA audits are supposed to be published on each center’s website, the inspection reports point to a lack of compliance that warrants public oversight.

Eleven juvenile detention centers were found to have at least one area of non-compliance. Many had more than one. The most common area of noncompliance within the inspection reports was discipline. Discipline covers the use of room confinement, use of force by staff, as well as having an age-appropriate behavioral management program. The behavioral management program should foster the development of prosocial skills and reinforce good behavior. Often the excessive use of room confinement as cited as the cause for a finding of non-compliance. 

Number of Non-Compliant Facilities by Area of Discipline
The above graph shows how many facilities were non-compliant in a given area. For example, 10 facilities were found to be non-compliant in the area of discipline.

Room Confinement vs Behavioral Program

Room confinement is the norm in many of the facilities despite the county detention standards stating that “room confinement may be used only as a temporary response to behavior that threatens the safety of the youth or others” and that “room confinement shall not be used for a fixed period of time.” 

Many facilities have policies that stipulate eight, 16 or, 24-hour increments for room confinements. Plain readings of policy can sometimes obfuscate actual practice within the facility. For example, inspectors reviewed one room confinement policy but had to learn from staff and youth interviews that “youth sleeping hours do not ‘count’ towards a youth’s confinement so, in practice, a youth sanctioned to serve 24 hours of confinement serves closer to 36 hours.” The lack of uniform definitions across facilities, and difference between stated policies and actual treatment within facilities, hampers cross-facility analysis.

The overuse of room confinement often gets in the way of the age-appropriate behavioral management program that the county detention standards say facilities should use to discipline youth. 

David Roush, a juvenile justice specialist and author of a 2019 book on the court-ordered reform of Cook County’s county detention center, explained that the behavior management programs are important because of how teenagers’ brains develop. Roush said that teenagers lack a good way to measure risk and reward. This is why having a behavioral management program that rewards good behavior, as the county detention standards mandate, is important because it helps develop a way for youth to measure risk and reward.

The standards explicitly state that the facilities must use incentives for good behavior, and that good behavior  should be immediately recognized. Negative behavior, on the other hand, should be met with age-appropriate consequences that are not only backed by research but also “proportionate and fair.”

Several inspection reports reveal that instead of a behavioral intervention, facilities often resort instead to confinement, and in these cases confinement is often 24 hours or more at a time. Inspectors described one facility where a new administration had removed the previous behavioral program. Instead, the inspectors found that the facility relied on confining youth, typically for eight, 16, or 24 hours. In another facility, inspectors stated that use of a behavioral program was “nonexistent.” Instead this facility also relied on confinement with youth being confined for up to 24 hours.


Inspection reports are designed in part to bring all centers in line with the county detention standards. But there is little clear evidence that the existing inspections are enough to incentivize all counties into compliance, especially with regard to the overuse of room confinement.

In its initial inspection, Knox County’s Mary Davis Home was found to be in non-compliance in several areas, with inspectors declaring that many warranted immediate attention. This resulted in a follow-up inspection later in the year. Although some immediate improvements were noted, such as ending strip searches upon intake and frequently shutting off the water to residents who were “segregated” per a facility behavioral policy, room confinement was still the norm. For example, inspectors found that one youth had “too many magazines in his room” and was then confined until 3 p.m. the next day.

The Cook County detention center is another facility that repeatedly has been under fire for its use of room confinement, with little improvement over the years. A committee of experts appointed by Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans released a report in May 2022 critical of the use of confinement at Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. In its report, the committee noted that many of its findings could have been avoided if the superintendent had imposed policy proposals from a report issued in 2016. The Cook County facility is once again in the news over its frequent and questionable use of force.

And the cycle continues: Another committee is now reviewing the new recommendations. 

The Cook County facility was inspected in May of 2022 by the Department of Juvenile Justice, and the subsequent inspection report is dated August 11, 2022. It includes the recommendation to reduce the use of confinement. 

Some of the reports, such as St. Clair’s, mention that since the inspection the facility has begun to implement changes. St. Clair’s report notes that since the on-site visit the facility had begun developing a behavioral management program with the DJJ providing feedback as administrators developed the program.

BGA Policy was often unable to access documents supporting evidence of improvement. Administrators from the St. Clair County facility did not respond to BGA Policy’s request for documentation of the county facility’s use of a behavioral program.

For this analysis, BGA Policy sent FOIA requests to 16 juvenile detention centers. Seven responded, and only four provided copies of the requested documents. Many of the responses mirror the one shown below, where the respondent explains that they are exempt from FOIA, and therefore are not required to comply, and will not be sharing any information.

With regard to the information that you requested under the FOIA, The River Valley Detention Center operates under the authority of the Chief Judge of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit pursuant to the County Shelter Care and Detention Home Act ; 55 ILCS  75 et. seq. Mr. Chris Watkins is responsible for overseeing the RVDC through the Illinois Probation Officer’s Act; 730 ILCS 110 et. seq. and under the authority of the Chief Judge of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit. Please be advised that the Courts and related  departments have been specifically excluded from the Freedom of Information Act. The Act specifically states that it applies to  the Executive and Legislative branches of government. The Courts have held in Copley Press, Inc. v. Administrative Office of the  Illinois Courts, 271 Ill. App. 3d 568 (1st Dist. 1995), appeal denied, 163 Ill. 2d 551 (1995) that the “lack of any reference to the courts  or judiciary must be taken as intent [by the legislature] to exclude the judiciary from the disclosure requirements of the Act.”  Furthermore, records of any of the juveniles detained at the RVDC are all confidential pursuant to Confidentiality of Records and  Expungements; 705 ILCS 405/5-901, and cannot be released without the approval of the Juvenile Court Judge. Therefore, I must  respectfully deny your request.

-Email from the River Valley Detention Center in Will County denying access to information because they are not subject to FOIA.

Of the four that provided information, two noted they were doing so voluntarily and that they are not subject to FOIA. 

The Kane County Juvenile Justice Center is a part of the Judicial branch of state government, as such we are not subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.  That said, the Kane County Juvenile Justice Center believes in the importance of being transparent about our policies and practices for the care of minors entrusted to us. Of course we cannot release names or circumstances of individual residents as that is protected under the Juvenile Court Act, but we will provide you the information you have requested in your e-mail on 1/18/23.  Cooperation with your request is not to be interpreted as acknowledgement by me or any other representative of Kane County that FOIA applies to the Judicial branch, or any of its court-affiliated entities such as a juvenile temporary detention facility.  We are providing this information voluntarily.

-Email from the Kane County Juvenile Justice Center, granting access to information while stating that they are not doing so because of FOIA since they are exempt from FOIA.

Of the four that provided documents, two provided copies of all the documents BGA Policy requested, and the remaining detention center, in Sangamon County, produced only their policy guides and none of the data requested.

As part of the judiciary, we are not subject to the FOIA.  Your FOIA request, then, is denied in its entirety on this basis.

Nevertheless, we do honor requests for copies of the following requested policies:  Use of Force Policy, Room Confinement Policy and our Orientation Handbook; thus, they are attached to this email.

Insofar as your PREA inquiry, we have not been certified at this time.  However in an effort to become PREA compliant, the Sangamon County Court Services Department has a grant currently in place to work toward compliance.  We will continue working toward PREA compliance with an expectation of completion of an audit and full compliance in 2023.

-Email from Sangamon County Court Services denying the FOIA request from BGA Policy, while still allowing access to requested policies, but not the requested data.

The new county detention standards have requirements necessary to be PREA compliant and changes to room confinement policies that better conform to federal standards and experts’ recommendations. 

But, as good as having these policies in place is, that only does so much good. “Policy on paper is step one, [you need] staff buy-in, youth buy-in, and you need to be tracking outcomes,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association. The John Howard Association had monitored the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center under a court-ordered consent decree. Vollen-Katz told BGA Policy that the John Howard Association wanted to continue doing so, but the new superintendent did not maintain the relationship, they have also made recent calls for more transparency in Illinois’ Juvenile Detention Centers.

Without the access FOIA would provide organizations like the John Howard Association are unable to acquire information about how the county detention centers are run, without a court-order consent decree. 

Chief of Juvenile Division in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, Lubelfeld told BGA Policy that by doing better in the juvenile justice system, “we’ll save money on the adult criminal justice system.” This oversight cannot come from another area of the judicial branch itself either, as Executive Director Vollen-Katz told BGA Policy “[the courts are] too close to call this independent oversight.”

To the question if adding the courts, and therefore the juvenile detention center, under FOIA would make a hard job harder, Blue Ribbon Committee Chair Gene Griffin said, “I disagree that just because something is harder, you shouldn’t do it. [A]ny transition would be difficult, but if your interest is really kids … that’s where it helps to have data. [Data] can tell you a lot [about] how the kids are doing.”

The bottom line is, as Dr. Griffin told BGA Policy, “With making data public – the intent is not to embarrass public officials, but to help the kids.”


Sophia Van Pelt (pronouns: She/Her/Hers) graduated from Illinois State University in 2017 with a Bachelor of Social Work degree. Her policy classes sparked an interest in policy analysis which led to her...