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Hamlet on the bench

Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Chicago Tribune

U.S. District Judge John Nordberg is unwilling to force improvements at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. He should act now or get out of the way and let a more decisive, involved judge take this case.

Nordberg has presided for three years over an agreement reached in court to improve conditions at the center. The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents youths at the center, has struggled for those three years to get county officials to comply with the terms of that agreement. The county hasn't even come close.

And yet Nordberg is still urging both sides to try to work out their differences.

Judge, the problem isn't working out an agreement. We supposedly got there three years ago. The problem is that Cook County is incapable of abiding by one.

Nordberg said as much himself in court last week. The detention center's superintendent, Jerry Robinson, has "flunked his test," the judge said. "Essentially, not much of anything really has been accomplished."

Yes! That's the point!

The center remains a mess. Numerous independent experts have found that. An eval uation ordered by Cook County Board President John Stroger himself found that kids live in dangerous, unhealthy, filthy conditions.

But Stroger has larded the place with incompetent, politically connected minions, and he still stands by them.

Are the minions worried about fixing the place? Here's what they're thinking about: Last week employees were invited to receive training credit for attending a two-hour seminar titled, "Menopause in the workplace."

The detention center will not change until incompetent personnel are cleared out. Last fall, the ACLU asked Nordberg to appoint an independent manager to step in and fix things. But Nordberg has stalled on that request for months.

And while Nordberg chastised the superintendent of the detention center, he heaped undeserved praise on two court-appointed monitors who are supposed to keep an eye on progress there. While the monitors counted the salad forks these last three years, the detention center wallowe d in chaos. Neither monitor has bothered to spend much time talking to kids or lower level staffers to get a sense of how the place is run.

And yet Nordberg last week suggested those two monitors should be more involved in helping to work out an agreement, come up with a compliance plan and enforce it. What a mistake.

The parties in the case will appear before Nordberg one more time, on Thursday, before he takes off for six weeks to vacation in California. He'll be taking more extended time off this year to hit other destinations. Nordberg retired a decade ago, but works on "senior status," which basically means he can come and go as he likes.

There are 450 kids at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on any given day, and they don't have the luxury of a six-week California vacation.

Judge, name an independent monitor on Thursday. If you're not prepared to do that, give the case to another judge who will devote the time and make the deci sions to fix this problem now. You have become part of the problem.



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