top of page

More Harm Than Good

Making a state safe from its kids, and vice versa

Illinois Times


This piece probably was published in 1993 or thereabouts. I was doing a fair amount of writing—and even more learning and thinking—about the ways problematic children are treated in Illinois. I used to see the juvenile justice system as a bad system run by a lot of good people; more recently I worry that Illinois has a good (or good-as-it-can-get) system run by not nearly enough good people.


Illinois earned a spot—perhaps undeservedly—on the roster of U.S. social service innovators when it adopted its landmark Juvenile Court legislation in 1899 that provided alternatives to incarceration in adult jails for minors who commit crimes. Its founders designed a hybrid institution that was part law court, part welfare agency, part den mother. The juvenile courts were given this unique charge because Illinois then no other agencies that might do any of those jobs. Its backwardness obliged it to be innovative.


The act’s premise was that children, even murderous ones, ought not to be held responsible for the evils visited upon them by callous or stupid adults. For example, the original Juvenile Court Act assumes that not every kid who commits a crime is a criminal. (Criminal behavior is one way that kids reveal the damage done by drug abuse, mental retardation, sex abuse, and endemic poverty.) The act also assumed that people who are not adults cannot be expected to exercise adult responsibility over their actions and thus shouldn't be punished like adults for the results, and that since the aim of the system should be to help rather than punish the kid, the court and its officials need to be granted a generous discretion in the disposition of cases.


Keeping kids out of jail is good for the kids and good for the taxpayers. The annual cost of housing an adult in an Illinois jail is $16,000, a fact that makes juvenile delinquency and drug abuse prevention programs look cheap. (The cost of crisis intervention, emergency placement, and other services offered by the Department of Children and Family Services' Division of Youth and Community Services in FY91 was $645 per kid—although it is debatable whether such services actually deter anyone from ending up in jail.)


Illinois's chronic money shortages mean that the state must break that promise to both the kids and the taxpayers. Typical was the decision by the legislature to eliminate 38 staffers (most of them parole agents) from the allocation for the Juvenile Field Services Division of the Department of Corrections to reduce the FY88 budget.


For more than a century, Illinois' juvenile justice policy has wavered between the state's role of helper and that of punisher, usually according to the levels of anxiety felt by the general public about juvenile lawbreakers. At the moment the punishers hold sway; a suburban member of the General Assembly introduced three typical bills this session that would impose harsher-than-normal sentences when crimes such as illegal weapons use were committed by gang members.


Such distinctions are of dubious constitutionality, and law enforcement experts were unanimous in agreeing that they would have no deterrent effect on young people. Such measures keep being introduced anyway, because such objections pale beside lawmakers' need to placate an anxious public by "doing something" about youth gangs. 


We still believe that kids under a certain age cannot be held responsible for their actions, but the legal age of responsibility has shifted with the times; in Illinois it used to be seven; today anyone in Illinois 15 years and over can automatically be tried as an adult if he commits certain serious crimes. That age may continue to drop as the public's fear of young criminals rises. In 1988 the Illinois Supreme Court was obliged to rule whether 13-years-olds charged with multiple murders could be tried as adults or children under state law.


The legislators' focus on crimes rather than on criminals, say Michael Maloney of the Chicago office of the John Howard Association, leads to prescriptions for the Juvenile Court that are "not terribly well thought out," so they do "more harm than good."


For example, by far the most crimes committed by kids are property crimes. Even the dismaying tendency toward armed violence is (the tragic case of bystander shootings notwithstanding) mostly intramural. Our social decision to punish drug use rather than to cure it also exaggerates the extent of youthful crime by criminalizing a whole generation of (mainly) poor teens for whom conventional sources of both recreation and income are hard to come by.


The presumed innocence of youth is only the most dubious of the assumptions underlying juvenile justice. Much of the juvenile justice apparatus also assumes that every youthful delinquent is father to an adult criminal, that a kid who breaks the law will, unless stopped, go on to more and worse crimes. Accumulating research suggests that this view is, if not exactly unfounded, at least over-simple. Kids who commit serious crimes tend do indeed tend to commit serious crimes as adults, but kids who commit minor crimes tend to commit only minor crimes as adults, if they break the law at all.


In a major study of Philadelphia's crooks, a mere seven percent of the criminals committed two thirds of all violent crimes, including three fourths of rapes and virtually all the murders. Most significantly in terms of preventive policy, this tendency toward mayhem was evident quite early; all the habitual criminals had had five or more arrests by age 18. But since these early arrests led to only token punishments they had no deterrent effect.


A sensible juvenile delinquency program would focus on ways to identify those kids most likely to become habitual criminals and deal with them seriously (via incarceration or therapy). But the system's record-keeping, confidentiality rules, and general incompetence makes tracking these miscreants all but impossible.


As a result, attempts to get tough with kids usually get tangled in the contradictions of the laws we set up to deal with them. Throw the book at a first-time offender in order to scare him out of a life of crime, and you'll probably force him into one; a record does not make getting a straight job easy, after all. Last year the Chicago Tribune told this story about one youngster who was an habitual criminal by the age of 16, having been arrested several times for burglaries and, later, break-ins and rapes. A DCFS ward, he had run away from shelters and other places he'd been sent by officials of the Juvenile Court. When arrested on a felony charge early in 1992, he lied and gave his age as 18. By thus bypassing the Juvenile Court and making himself eligible for a personal recognizance bond available to adults charged with nonviolent felony crimes. He didn't have to run away this time, just walk out of jail. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page