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Cook County's scandal: Kids awaiting trial.

Thursday, January 11, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

You don't want to hear about the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention facility.
 
Maybe you think the gang-bangers sent there are not worth worrying about.
 
Perhaps you think these children, ages 10 to 16, must be guilty of something, even though they've been convicted of nothing.
 
But I'm going to tell you a little about the place we put our children in as they await trial because I'm feeling guilty about ignoring the problem myself.
 
Today, a blue ribbon committee of the Chicago Bar Association will recommend changes in the way Cook County treats teenagers accused but not convicted of a crime.
 
I told Kevin Durkin, an Orland Park resident and president of the Chicago Bar, that many of my readers don't care about these kids.
 
I didn't realize how true my words were until Durkin mentioned that some of these children can spend a year or more in the detention facility awaiting trial.
 
These are usually kids who will be tried as adults.
 
But at other times, the county just doesn't know what to do with a 14- or 15-year-old kid because he has no family.
 
He's been arrested by police, but Dad is nowhere to be found and Mom may be in prison herself, or a drug addict.
 
"The family situation is the sort of the thing you don't want to send a kid back to," is how retired Associate Cook County Circuit Judge Patricia Brown Holmes put it. Holmes, a former juvenile court judge, chaired the bar association's Blue Ribbon panel.
 
So while DCFS spends months trying to find a foster home for such children, they sit in the detention facility.
 
It's located at 1100 S. Hamilton St. in Chicago and was built to hold about 490 youths, Durkin said.
 
But at times more than 800 teenagers have been squished into the place.
 
Children arrested for curfew violations are tossed in with gang members who may have killed people.
 
I didn't think anyone was arrested for curfew violations any more.
 
"They are," Holmes said. "It happens in Chicago, where the police may catch a kid after curfew and suspect he may have been getting involved in something more serious.
 
"They take him into custody and call his home, but maybe his parents work nights. In any case, there's no one at home to come claim him, so he's placed in the detention center overnight."
 
The American Civil Liberties Union and the John Howard Association, a prison reform organization, have filed complaints in federal court claiming that in the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center guards have looked the other way as children are beaten and harassed.
 
The FBI is investigating allegations of corruption at the center. Administrators allegedly applied for federal grants to improve the place. The place was never improved.
 
That's how the Chicago Bar Association became involved.
 
The federal court appointed an independent panel of experts to study the problems at the jail and recommend solutions.
 
The Chicago Bar Association's chief recommendation is to take control of the detention facility out of the hands of the Cook County Board and put it directly under the chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Courts.
 
"That's the way it's done in 101 of the state's 102 counties," Durkin said. "It means one person will be in charge. The chief judge will be held accountable for any problems there."
 
The bar's blue ribbon panel also is recommending that the center be split into several separate facilities, including one exclusively for youths to be tried as adults.
 
It wants long-term educational programs to be offered, so teenagers can actually learn something other than criminal behavior.
 
The Chicago Bar's blue ribbon committee specifically recommended a separate detention facility for the south suburbs, which is contributing a growing number of teenagers to the detention center population.
 
"Parents often can't make regular trips to visit their children," Durkin said. "Public transportation from the suburbs to Chicago is terrible. And there are only certain hours when parents can visit their children in the detention center.
 
"If you're working and have to make a 2˝-hour bus ride to the detention center, you may be too late to spend time with your child. It's not a good situation."
 
If Charles Dickens were alive today, I think he would be writing about the detention center and the children who end up there.
 
Children with no parents. Children brutalized by other children. Children that society has condemned without a trial.
 
"They're probably guilty of something, or will be," you're saying.
 
"They're people," Holmes said. "Innocent people who have been found guilty of no crime."
 
If we cared, this rotten hole of a detention facility would not have existed for nearly a decade.
 



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