Children and Family Justice Center

"Like so much else in our criminal legal system, the tortuous reasoning of the felony murder rule is a dirty secret, hidden away from serious public scrutiny."

You know about felony murder and how it has expanded the definition of murder to include those who didn’t cause the death. But there’s much more to its history and how it is used today. It’s explained in detail in a recent article in The Appeal written by Shobha L. Mahadev, a clinical associate professor of law at CFJC, and Steven Drizin, a clinical professor of law and co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

“It is a cruel irony in our nation’s history that laws ostensibly intended to punish the few in the most egregious of circumstances are instead wielded to oppress vast numbers of our most vulnerable people,” wrote Mahadev and Drizin. “The felony murder rule is a stark example, with its disparate and cruel impact on young and nonwhite people and women. This draconian doctrine serves no value for most people in our society, as it is not designed to address the true acts or intentions of an accused person.”

Their conclusion: “The U.S. criminal legal system is punitive enough as it is. It’s time to replace the felony murder rule with a more logical and humane approach to acts that have unforeseen results.”

Crime and arrest data provide an incomplete picture of carjacking

In a February state legislative hearing, Stephanie Kollmann, CFJC Policy Director, was asked to give lawmakers an overview of recent crime data. She testified that while reports of vehicular hijacking have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a decrease in several other crime categories. Kollmann said crime report and arrest data provide an incomplete picture of who is responsible and the reasons for the rise in carjackings across the nation. Most carjacking cases have not been resolved, making it unclear how many youth have been involved.

What is life like inside the five Illinois prisons for youth?

The answer to that question is best answered by the young people living it 24/7. CFJC went inside the prisons to ask that question and many more. You’ll find some of the answers in our latest installment of CFJC’s series Community Safety & the Future of Illinois’ Youth PrisonsCommunity Safety & The Future of Illinois' Youth Prisons logo

Between July 2019 and July 2020, we hosted more than 30 convenings of youth behind the walls and additional convenings of discussions with staff and incarcerated adults who previously were held in youth prisons. Most were conducted in person, but videoconferencing was used for all conducted after the pandemic took hold in March.

“Overall, the youth reported feeling shamed, criminalized, and punished, but not prepared for reintegration into broader society,” according to the report.

The series of reports is the result of a multi-year research endeavor by the Children and Family Justice Center.  The research included interviews with a wide variety of policymakers, a survey of over 150 stakeholders, the collection and analysis of data about the state’s justice system, and an extensive review of academic and practitioner research. The series will culminate in a detailed set of recommendations, consistent with calls from researchers and practitioners nationwide, for a five-year plan to end Illinois’ use of large, adult-modeled prisons for youth and to expand alternatives to incarceration. Find each installment on our Youth In Custody section. 

GOING BACK INSIDE: Reflections of Denzel Burke

Denzel Burke writes about the experience of going back inside the state’s prison system – the places where he spent five years of his youth. Headshot illustration of Denzel

“Shortly after I was released, the Children and Family Justice Center asked if I would help co-lead workshops inside the five youth prisons in Illinois,” Denzel wrote. “I had served time in four of the five facilities. I could not have imagined myself walking back into a prison I used to do time in, for any reason. However, the opportunity the Children and Family Justice Center offered me was different. I wasn’t going back into a facility to play a role in locking kids down; I was coming back to uplift their often forgotten voices. The experience of walking back through the prison doors once I was free was one of a kind and I was nervous to walk back through those loud locked doors.”

Telling his story and listening to the youth inside the prisons had an impact on Denzel.

“They need someone to hear them out and listen to what they have to say to understand where they want to go, and the difficulty they faced before coming to prison, and once they get out,” he wrote. “So many of them have dreams of where they want to go. How can we provide them with a way to get there, because all we have been providing them with, after making a mistake in the field full of landmines they have to navigate in their communities, is prison.”

Read more of about the experience and Denzel’s conclusions in “Going Back Inside: Reflections on Creative Convenings Inside Youth Prisons.”

(Denzel Burke illustration by Brian Herrera)

Juvenile Justice During the Coronavirus Pandemic

In a recent Planet Lex podcast, CFJC Director Julie L. Biehl explained efforts to release juveniles from prison during the Covid-19 pandemic, and explained her vision for the future of juvenile justice.



CFJC — along with formerly incarcerated youth, youth and families impacted by the juvenile legal system, and people who care about impact of the juvenile legal system — have launched the Final 5 Campaign.

The Final 5 Campaign asks the state to take the following steps:

CLOSE the five remaining Illinois youth prisons within the next two years, with the two largest facilities (located in St. Charles and Harrisburg) leading the way.

DEVELOP a continuum of services that does not rely primarily on placing youth into facilities. Congregate settings must have a maximum capacity of 10 youth and offer developmentally-appropriate levels of comfort, privacy, and self-determination. The youth’s family must be provided transportation to visit the youth weekly.

SPEND twice as much on community-directed prevention and re-entry resources than is allocated to the construction or rehabilitation of new facilities.

ENSURE that all IDJJ staff, contractors, and other adults interacting with youth on a professional level are trauma-informed and invested in the growth and rehabilitation of the youth in custody.

ACTIVELY INVOLVE formerly incarcerated youth, other impacted people and advocates, in the transformation of the juvenile prison system.

In brief, the Campaign is committed to ending youth incarceration, investing in communities and working with you to achieve our shared vision of a system that will help children in their home communities and provides equitable treatment of youth of color.  JOIN US.

Governor Announces Plan to Transform Illinois Juvenile Justice System

Illinois to Move from Large Youth Prisons to Small Residential Centers

In the summer of 2020, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced that the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice will transition from five large-scale prisons into three small, regional residential centers.

The plan, which is in development, will include increased state investment in community wraparound support and intervention services for justice-involved youth and victim services in communities that are disproportionately impacted by violence, according to the governor.

Gov. Pritzker made the announcement at the New Life Community Church and was joined by Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, IDJJ Director Heidi Mueller, and several legislators. Read more details in the governor’s news release and IDJJ’s presentation.

Gov. Pritzker said the current system “disproportionately harms Black youth, families and communities.” He said that over the next four years, the system will be transformed to a “restorative and therapeutic model that supports all Illinois youth, families and communities more equitably.”

“Racial disparities are widespread in the nation’s adult and juvenile legal systems, and that, unfortunately, includes Illinois,” said Julie L. Biehl, Director of CFJC. “White youth are the minority and Black youth are the majority in Illinois prisons today. Blacks are less than 15 percent of the state’s population but more than 70 percent of the youth prison population. This racial injustice is an emergency.

“Our goal must be an end to the imprisonment of all children," she said. "No children of any race should be in prison cells surrounded by barbed wire and unable to visit their families. Illinois has come a long way in the reform of the juvenile justice, but more is left to be done.”

Read the statement issued by CFJC, the ACLU of Illinois, the Illinois Justice Project, and the John Howard Association of Illinois.

About the Children and Family Justice Center

Founded in 1992, the Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) is a comprehensive children's law office and part of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. At the CFJC, attorneys and law students work together to promote justice for children, adolescents, and their families through direct legal representation, policy advocacy and law reform. More...