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Stroger will give court control of youth center

Thursday, January 11, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas and Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger agreed Wednesday to transfer control of the county's troubled juvenile home to the Circuit Court in a dramatic move that advocates predicted would improve the lives of thousands of children.

The transfer of power to Chief Judge Timothy Evans is the main recommendation in a report on fixing the center, to be released Thursday by the Chicago Bar Association.
The move could come within six months, after the Stroger administration complies with a plan for improving conditions at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Violence, cleanliness and lack of appropriate health care at the facility have been ongoing issues central to a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The bar association report goes beyond the current problems at the center and recommends long-term efforts to improve the juvenile justice system, including decentralizing services by placing new facilities in other parts of the county.

"The president agrees with the recommendations in the report," Stroger spokesman Steve Mayberry said. "Given that he started the cleanup process, we would like to finish it before we turn it over to someone else's jurisdiction."

Cook is the only county in the state in which the juvenile home is not run by the chief judge. The change will require approval by the General Assembly, and two House Republicans introduced legislation Wednesday to effect that change.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) expects Democrats to support the bill but said they were waiting for word from Stroger.

Suffredin, a lobbyist whose clients include the CBA, was in Stroger's office Wednesday when the board president heard bar association officials' presentation on the report.

"He said, `All right, it's the right thing to do. We'll make it part of our legislative agenda,'" Suffredin said. "I would say that he was enthusiastic."

Stroger's father, former board President John Stroger, asked the CBA in late 2005 to study the juvenile center.

"I think [Todd Stroger] was convinced by the experts that if it works in the other counties and in judicial circuits throughout Illinois, it would be responsible to have that work here," Suffredin said.

County Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) called Stroger's move "a major concession and an appropriate one."

Quigley expects the center to be run in a more professional and less political manner under Evans' direction.

Evans, a former Chicago alderman, has been the county's chief judge since 2001. Beyond running the massive court system, his office also oversees juvenile and adult probation, the public guardian's office and other services.

"This structure allows for a detention center that is values-and-mission-driven and works in concert with the spirit of youth accountability and rehabilitation that is at the core of an effective juvenile justice system," the 17-member panel of experts wrote in the report.

In 1999, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Cook County officials, alleging they deprived residents of adequate medical, dental and mental health as well as subjecting them to violence and abuse. In 2002, a federal judge approved an agreement between the parties that appointed independent monitors.

In 2005, however, the ACLU was back in court, alleging that the county had not complied with the agreement and that problems continued.

An ACLU lawyer welcomed the news Wednesday but cautioned that the problems have not yet been fixed.

"You still have to deal with the problem of changing the culture there," said Benjamin Wolf, a lawyer for the ACLU.

In response to published reports of problems, the Chicago Bar Association began examining problems at the center, meeting with officials and visiting the facility as well as other Illinois facilities that could serve as models for improvement.

The bar committee also recommended that the detention center be decentralized and that separate centers, including a facility for youths being tried as adults, be created elsewhere in the county, particularly in the south suburbs.

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