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New program aims to divert local juveniles from being incarcerated

News-Gazette - 2/8/2024

Feb. 7—URBANA — A popular state program aimed at keeping young offenders out of prison is expected to launch in Champaign County this month.

The launch comes after a group of local partners won funding last year from the Juvenile Redeploy grant, a program sponsored by the Illinois Department of Human Services. It aims to help supplement typical probation plans by providing treatment services and resources to eligible juvenile offenders who would otherwise be sentenced to prison.

Juveniles who apply and enter the program in Champaign County may get life coaching and job training from DREAAM Academy, a Champaign nonprofit, or mental-health and substance-abuse counseling from Cunningham Children's Home in Urbana.

Youths may also receive transportation to attend school and necessary appointments, or access flex funding that the grant provides for emergencies — like if a child's home no longer has power.

"A lot of the time, the people who are placed on probation have needs that aren't necessarily going to be addressed in the punitive fashion," said James Benson, a Cunningham care coordinator who will be involved with the Redeploy program in Champaign County. "Sometimes it's as easy as transportation, sometimes it's a caregiver that is unwilling to help out at all. So a program like Redeploy is there to kind of break down some of those barriers, help out with some of those pieces that either the kids themselves or the family are struggling with."

Forty-five Illinois counties have participated in Redeploy since 2015, according to the state agency's website, with 72 percent of the youths involved in 2019 having no new arrests while enrolled.

DREAAM founder Tracy Dace said he and representatives from Cunningham have been involved in becoming the primary service providers for the program since discussions to bring it to Champaign County began over a year ago.

He added that Sam Smith, a member of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, led the effort to gather a local planning team and submit the grant application.

Chief Public Defender Elisabeth Pollock said the county gained access to Redeploy funding on Jan. 1, but no juvenile has been sentenced to participate in the program yet, as it has taken time to establish protocols on who is eligible.

Youths qualify for Redeploy if they are 13 or older and have been charged with a felony offense that does not involve the discharge of a firearm or other significant violence.

They must also be deemed moderate or high risk from a Youth Assessment Screening Instrument evaluation done by certified evaluators at DREAAM.

Pollock added that juveniles and their families or support networks must apply to the program, to ensure that everyone is on board.

"We've seen a lot of criminal charges against the youth of our community, and sending a youth to the Department of Juvenile Justice may be one of the options that's available in the criminal-justice system, but it doesn't prevent the same trends and behaviors that brought the youth to the system," Pollock said. "The point of Redeploy is to change habits, to change lives, to change resources and by being able to provide more support to the youth. The hope is we will deter future involvement in the criminal-justice system."

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