Illinois bill would expand civics and voter education to incarcerated youths in state custody

Illinois stands on the cusp of expanding voting and civics education to young people incarcerated at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice who are older than 17 and within a year of their release date.

Senate Bill 2116, which cleared both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly on Friday, would ensure that incarcerated youths have access to voter registration, information on how to vote, and opportunities to co-facilitate the civics education curriculum with their peers in state juvenile facilities.

Supporters of the bill said the idea behind the legislation is to help ensure that, before their release, incarcerated youths know the process for voter registration and are equipped to engage meaningfully in civics life as they reintegrate into society.

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“This bill is about restoring the individual, rather than putting up roadblocks, even after you serve your time,” said Illinois House Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, one of the bill’s House sponsors. “If we want to decrease recidivism, then we need to invest in the individual.”

The youths’ curriculum is broken down into three 90-minute workshops led by peer educators who are incarcerated residents of the facility. One of the co-facilitators of the curriculum will be a resident of the facility, trained in voting rights education by a nonpartisan civics organization, while the other will be a member of said organization. Workshops will be offered to residents 12 months before their release as part of their standard exit process.


Courtesy of Chicago Votes/James Lenoir.

The front cover of a civics curriculum packet created by supporters of Senate Bill 2116, including Chicago Votes, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and Christina Rivers, an associate professor of political science at DePaul University. The cover art is by James Lenoir.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign the bill into law, which would go into effect in January 2022 and amend the Re-Entering Citizens Civics Education Act passed in 2019 that created a civics education curriculum and increased access to voter registration across all Illinois prisons.

That 2019 law was a product of a collaboration between students at the Stateville Correctional Center, Chicago Votes, and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. The same groups later worked with state juvenile justice officials to negotiate the latest amendment with the help of Illinois State Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago.

“Being a person who was affected by the [criminal] justice system, you’re told you’re never going to be able to vote again,” said Javier Reyes, a formerly incarcerated organizer with Chicago Votes. “So when these bills get passed, now you’re able to give people the correct information. You’re able to empower them.”

Christina Rivers, an associate professor of political science at DePaul University, and her students, played critical roles in getting the 2019 bill drafted.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Rivers taught a class every other year at the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, on law and politics attended by incarcerated people and DePaul students.

During Rivers’ first year teaching the course in 2016, her students decided to focus on felony disenfranchisement for a group project and subsequently wrote the initial drafts for the legislation. They partnered with Chicago Votes and Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights to write a legislative proposal. Three years later, it was signed into law as the Re-Entering Citizens Civics Education Act.

“It’s the first such bill that we know of in this country,” Rivers said. “We’re thrilled that we were able to write it in that setting with that team.”