A chance for the juvenile center
Friday, July 20, 2007
Negotiators appear to be close to a breakthrough in the prolonged struggle to bring order from chaos at Cook County's detention center for youth. If they can all agree, they will turn the place over to Earl Dunlap, a national leader in juvenile justice.
An imposing man with Kentucky roots, a Downstate home address and a down-home demeanor, Dunlap looks like an excellent choice to lead a turnaround. Representatives for Cook County and the American Civil Liberties Union were negotiating this week on how much authority Dunlap, if hired, would be granted.
If they settle on that, the ACLU would drop its motion to have the juvenile center placed in receivership by the federal court.
One key: convincing Cook County commissioners to give Dunlap enough authority and autonomy to fix the place. The County Board controls the budget and operations for the facility, which houses more than 400 youths.
Another key: Convincing commissioners they can't protect the political hacks they've forced on the payroll at the center.
Dunlap is executive director of the National Juvenile Detention Association. By all reports, he's an aggressive, no-nonsense, hands-on administrator. He has extraordinary experience, and he wouldn't be concerned about Cook County politics.
He's in great demand around the country. Most recently he's been in Washington, D.C., helping to reform a troubled, 80-bed youth detention center there.
"Earl is a really colorful character who has an incredible amount of knowledge about juvenile detention systems," said Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington. Schiraldi says Dunlap sleeps at the facility to get a sense of what goes on during the midnight shift ... and to save money on hotels.
Sounds promising. But there's one caveat. If Dunlap lacks the budget authority or flexibility to do his job effectively, then it will be a waste of everybody's time. It will be up to Cook County commissioners to ensure he has that authority.
The ACLU, which has documented chronic problems at the center, recently asked the federal court to wrest the place from the county and appoint a receiver. That would require a detailed, public airing of the filth, abuse and gross patronage practices at the center. County officials now appear willing to cede control in a quieter way, as long as Dunlap isn't called a "receiver." How much control he would have over purchasing, contracts and finances, however, is still the subject of intense negotiation.
ACLU officials believe Dunlap would need about a year to stabilize the center, maybe even a little more time. During that time, formal control would shift from the Cook County Board to Tim Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court, under state legislation approved last spring.
This sounds like a promising solution to a dire situation. And it can get done, provided Cook County politicians finally feel an obligation to fix the disaster they helped to create.