Front View of the Illinois Supreme Courthouse in Springfield, IL.
Front View of the Illinois Supreme Courthouse in Springfield, IL. (Sanya Kushak/iStock)

It’s hardly news that the juvenile justice system in Illinois is failing the young people it is supposed to serve.

In the Cook County detention center alone, advocates and journalists in the last year have detailed conditions that leave detainees isolated, deprived of normal human contact. The conditions in Cook County are not an outlier. In the 16 other county detention centers in Illinois, children face similarly egregious conditions. But a loophole in the Freedom of Information Act in Illinois prevents the public from accessing the full scope of issues.

A statewide review by my organization, the Better Government Association, used existing audits and inspections and found examples of neglect in a number of facilities. These included locking children in their rooms for 36 hours for reasons as frivolous as having a pencil and a letter with rap lyrics. In response to concerns about flooding, one facility would frequently turn off the water overnight to an entire section of the building. Inspectors even found unjustified use of chemical restraints, which include pepper spray, tear gas and mace. One facility had 10 instances of using chemical restraints in 2021, with inspectors finding that “some” cases appeared to be in violation of the standards of use and naming one case in particular that was a clear violation.

But under current law, the public is unable to learn more about the other cases of unwarranted use of chemical restraints, or of any other instances of misconduct within these facilities.

The incidents we know about are probably only the tip of a much larger iceberg. The judicial branch is exempt from providing information to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, and because the county detention centers fall under the jurisdiction of Illinois courts, they aren’t legally obligated to respond to requests for information.

While court systems statewide — including the juvenile detention system — have no obligation to respond to public records requests, they create public records footprints as they meet other disclosure obligations. Facilities must comply with periodic audits and inspections by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, which were used in the BGA Policy report I mention above. These give the public glimpses into what happens in these facilities. But such disclosures only scratch the surface and are not enough to ensure that the youths in these facilities are safe.

Worse, many facilities do not fully comply with the audits and inspections in the first place. The BGA found that only three of Illinois’ 16 county detention centers have completed a federally mandated audit meant to ensure young people are protected from sexual assault. And auditors from the Department of Juvenile Justice noted several facilities where data was scarce, with the Champaign County facility failing to provide basic information in 2021 and 2022.

The state’s failure to require facilities to respond to public requests denies public access to detailed data or aggregate information. This denies family members, researchers, journalists and advocates the ability to discover just how pervasive these problems are.

When the BGA sought this information through a standard records request, officials at most centers did not respond to questions about use of force and use of room confinement, or even provide the policy and procedure manuals that govern the use of force or confinement in these government facilities.

A bill introduced in the General Assembly this spring would have brought the Freedom of Information Act to the state’s court systems, including county juvenile detention centers, court finances and other judicial entities. The legislature should take up the bill and work quickly to apply the act equally across all branches of government.

Once the courts are subject to FOIA requests, researchers, advocates, journalists, family members and other interested parties will be able to request information from county detention centers and shed light on what is happening in these facilities. In the case of the juvenile detention system, such information could be used to enact future change to protect detained children.

The people of Illinois, and our government, have a duty to keep all children in the state safe as they prepare to enter adulthood. For many young people who wind up in the juvenile detention system, respectful and compassionate treatment in a safe environment is their best hope for growing into adulthood as conscientious members of our community.

Ensuring the safety of children in Illinois’ detention facilities is the least the public can do. We can protect these youths by shining a light on the facilities that house them as they await trial.


How a FOIA Loophole in Illinois Puts Kids at Risk

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…

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...