New Paper: Alternatives to Youth Incarceration in Chicago

“WE’RE IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL:”
ALTERNATIVES TO INCARCERATION FOR YOUTH IN CONFLICT WITH THE LAW

There is an urgent need to find constructive ways to respond to young people in conflict with the law. Research compellingly demonstrates that youth placed in juvenile detention centers compared to alternative interventions are much more likely to later spend significant time in prison (Aizer and Doyle, 2013). Juvenile and adult incarceration both create exorbitant financial and social costs (Petteruti, Velázquez, and Walsh, 2009). Incarceration of juveniles is harmful to young peoples’ development, education, families, communities, and their current and future socioeconomic status (Majd, 2011; Bickel, 2010). Furthermore, incarcerating youth is not effective at enhancing public safety (Butts & Evans, 2011; Petteruti, Velázquez, & Walsh, 2009).

In Chicago, a group of individuals and organizations are working to address the needs of young people who others have mostly given up on. Behind the headlines of gang violence, shootings, and despair, there is an untold and unheralded story of perseverance, tenacity, and hope in communities across the city. Every single day, there are individuals representing various community-based organizations in Chicago who are called to meet the needs of youth in conflict with the law. They do so with shockingly few resources, mostly out of the public eye, and always with a determination that all young people deserve love and support.

prison In the United States, over 2.2 million people are incarcerated in prisons and jails. To some, the country has become a “Prison Nation.” Young people have not escaped the historical trend of increasing criminalization. As a way to decrease the numbers of people behind bars, states have turned to alternatives to incarceration.

Today, Project NIA is pleased to release a paper written by Michelle VanNatta and Mariame Kaba which specifically addresses five programs in Chicago that provide alternatives to incarceration for young people charged with or convicted of crimes. Included in this exploration are issues of cost, effectiveness, capacity, and the needs of youth and organizations moving forward.

At their core, the interventions and programs that are highlighted in this paper privilege relationship-building above everything else. This will not be satisfying for those who seek a quick-fix to address the needs of youth in conflict with the law. The organizations and programs featured define success based on whether they have been able to connect young people with a person who will walk with them through a perilous road littered with pitfalls and danger.

These aren’t programs that operate from 9 to 5 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays. The staff don’t necessarily hold advanced degrees and most are paid at near minimum wage rates. When asked about their program budgets, most directors smile while suggesting that they made due with very limited funds. Most of the programs are housed in and/or run by faith-based institutions like churches.

In the end, we hope that those who read the paper will come away with a better understanding of the challenges and the promise of current “alternative to incarceration” programs in Chicago. As the value of these programs becomes clear, we also hope that funders and community members will direct more resources to them.

The paper can be downloaded HERE (PDF).

Special thanks to Matt DeMateo, Father Dave Kelly, Heidi Mueller, Cliff Nellis, Ethan Ucker for taking the time to talk with us about their work. Thanks also to our friend Caitlin Seidler for donating her time to design the paper.

Please direct any questions or comments about this paper to Michelle VanNatta and Mariame Kaba at projectnia@hotmail.com.

Also, Join us on September 26th for an event that addresses the issues raised in this paper. Space is very limited. We will not be accepting any walk-ins. You must pre-register. Information is HERE.

Finally, a few months ago, Leah Varjacques created a video story featuring two of the programs featured in the paper: Circles & Ciphers and Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation.

restoring hope from Leah Varjacques on Vimeo.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention, Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, New Research, Youth Incarceration

3 Comments on “New Paper: Alternatives to Youth Incarceration in Chicago”


  1. […] out this new paper on prison alternatives for […]


  2. Thanks for having a burden for our youth here in Chicago. We’re praying for this organization and keep up the good work.

    -Tasha, The Bridge Chicago


  3. […] punishment system) and last year I published a paper with my friend Dr. Michelle VanNatta about alternatives to youth incarceration in Chicago. In the paper, we provided a brief literature review about juvenile detention and incarceration. I […]


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