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Juvenile services win praise
Fewer Cook youths in prison now, report concludes

Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas

Cook County juvenile court sent nearly 400 fewer youths to state prisons between 1997 and 2004 because they were referred instead to community-based support services, according to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation made public Wednesday.

The drop from 902 Cook County kids being sent to state youth prisons in 1997 to 505 in 2004 is attributable to reforms that stress counseling instead of imprisonment, the report noted.

Court officials began sending to a single judge the cases of kids who may need to be moved out of their homes, which reduced residential placements from 426 at their peak to just 25 in 2006.

Court officials found a more efficient way to assess the mental health of kids by assigning each courtroom an expert who interprets psychological assessments and helps identify the appropriate treatment.

Also, Cook County has teamed up with community counseling providers to expand programs that were once only for youths returning home from treatment to include those at risk of going there or to a prison. The therapists help families cope with teens' behavioral problems and help the youths cope with school and neighborhood stressors.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who will take on oversight of the troubled Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, said he is thrilled to see the progress of community-based alternatives to detaining youth.

"As we go forward, I hope that we can multiply this success and be prepared for similar success when we take over the administration of the juvenile detention center starting in January. We want to help our children all over this county," Evans said. "We can save the lives of these children."

The Cook County Probation and Court Services Departments created an advisory panel in 2002 of current and former youth in the juvenile justice system to help assess the effectiveness of programs and find ways to improve them. Youth on probation in Cook County attend an orientation led by that council, which has been shown to reduce probation violations.

The court also changed staff hiring and training practices so that the Probation Department now recruits officers with social work backgrounds rather than those in law enforcement and hires people who used to be on probation to join the staff. In the Cook County Juvenile Probation Department, from 1995 to 2006, the African-American staff grew from 38 percent to 50 percent and the percentage of Hispanics on staff doubled.

Citing state figures, Patricia Connell, a juvenile justice consultant at the John Howard Association of Illinois, said the data show a slight increase in youth from Cook County who are being sent to youth prisons run by the state.

"The number is creeping up a little bit. We can't completely pat ourselves on the back. It's still a way smaller number than it was in 1997. But crime rates have dropped since 1997," Connell said.

The Casey foundation report, titled "Beyond Detention: System Transformation through Juvenile Detention Reform," documents reforms at three sites and includes counties in Oregon and California.

Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, an Illinois non-profit, said Cook County is headed in the right direction.

"I really applaud the county for their commitment to expanding alternatives and thereby diminishing reliance on confinement," Clarke said.



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