If a teenager is released from prison and immediately returns following his parole, who has failed? Is the parolee failing to change, or is the system failing to help?
The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice reported last year that 86 percent of Illinois youth who are released from prison end up returning within three years. It seems very possible, given this incredibly high rate, that the current juvenile jail and parole system is not effectively preparing kids for successful reintegration after prison. The state of Illinois is now piloting a program in Cook County to provide additional support outside of traditional parole to address this issue.
Aptly named Aftercare, the program offers counseling and help for youth to improve school achievement and overcome drug dependence. Parole officers typically only check on parolees as a way of making sure they are not doing anything they shouldn't. If an adolescent is given an Aftercare Specialist, that person is not only checking up on the parolee but also identifying what kind of help s/he needs—from drug counseling to transportation to school. The Specialist then works with a youth and family advocate who can use community connections to make the determined assistance possible.
While it sounds promising, unfortunately the program has seen little success in the three years since beginning its pilot. While state officials are eager to expand the program, perhaps some improvements should be made before that happens. In the planned expansion, for example, the support of the local specialists who are responsible for coordinating their network of help would not be involved. Without that, Aftercare Specialists will be overburdened by unrealistic case loads, a similar problem experienced by parole officers. In any case, the need for help is known, and there is hope that a solution is on the way.