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Juvenile Court Overwhelmed in Southern Cook County

Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Chicago Public Radio
by Rob Wildeboer

The juvenile court serving Chicago's South Suburbs is being overwhelmed by cases. It's a long-term problem that's going to require long-term solutions. In the meantime, the court and law enforcement officers are making use of alternative ways of handling young offenders. But what started out as a way to get kids more efficient justice, is turning out to be better justice all around.

Judge Michael Stuttley runs the juvenile court in Chicago's South Suburbs and he says his courtroom has been getting busier and busier.

STUTTLEY: With the advent of tearing the projects down in Chicago, there has been a mass exodus to the South Suburbs. Our numbers are shooting through the roof. Terry can tell you better than anybody what the numbers look like.

MCGINNIS: On a regular case that I get which is what these stacks here are, right there, when I go through those, if it needs to go to court, it's a three month delay and for kids three months is an eternity.

When Assistant State's Attorney Terry McGinnis started working in the Markham juvenile court in 1981, the court met only once a week. Now the court meets every day, and there aren't enough hours in the week to take care of the 1,200 or so cases each year, and it's taking longer and longer for kids to have their initial appearance before a judge.

MCGINNIS: If you let a little child put his hand, I mean, going way down to an infantpu, t his hand on the burner and say, 'Well, I'll take care of that in three or four months,' you're not going to have a hand left on that little kid.
McGinnis says kids need to see the consequences of their actions immediately.

MCGINNIS: When they have an action and that consequence doesn't come for a year or longer, they're not making that connection. The other problem is, they pick up one case, we can't bring that case in because of the backlog. They're picking up three, four cases. That's why you'll see kids in court now with four and five cases.

To relieve some of the pressure on the court, the Cook County State's Attorney's office is pushing alternatives. One of those alternatives is something called a peer jury. It's based in the restorative justice model of bringing offender and victim together to repair harm, rather than to just punish.

How it works is that on minor offences, police in some communities will keep a case out of the court by referring it to a group of high school students. They act as judge and jury over another teenager who's been arrested. The kids mete out punishments, and if the offender they're judging doesn't want to cooperate, the kids can then kick the case up to Judge Stuttley.

I recently attended a peer jury held in a conference room in the basement of the Homewood Police Department. After eating a few pizzas and talking, the kids gather around a table with the victim and the offender. The case involves a sixth grader who stole an iPhone from another girl on her sports team. A young woman starts the "hearing" by reading some ground rules.

YOUNG WOMAN: We will give you a chance to tell us what happened, why you think it happened and how you feel about it. Then we're going to ask some questions. Everyone is allowed to ask questions.

With her parents sitting behind her, the diminutive 11-year-old offender explains how she and a friend stole the phone and then her friend sent text messages, some obscene and one was a death threat. She cries, as she tells the story and answers questions, and she can barely be heard above the whirring of the heating and air conditioning system. The mother of the victim is also present and she voices her ongoing anger about the whole situation.

MOM: Even when you had a chance to correct it and do the right thing you chose not to.

After about a half an hour of getting the facts, the students ask the victim and the offender and their parents to leave the room so they can discuss the case.

ambi: She is so little…parents are strict I can tell.

After discussing the case, the student jurors settle on a decision. They bring everyone back into the room and tell the offender she has to write a one-page letter of apology to the victim, another letter to the team coach, and she has to do five hours of community service.

The next case this night is much less serious. A girl has stolen $8.02 worth of chips and candy from a local grocery store, but she's not remorseful so the jury gives her almost the exact same punishment as the girl who stole a $400 phone and texted a death threat.

The kids handle 30 to 40 cases a year, cases that never reach Judge Stuttley's already-overcrowded courtroom. If other communities followed suit, that court burden could be cut even more. The problem - other than skepticism from cops who don't want to do social work - is that it takes money from local governments to get started. But Flossmoor Detective Dennis Karner, who helped run the peer jury I attended, says there's a payoff for the police department.

KARNER: Here this is a one, two-night visit and we're done with that individual. They can go into Markham court and this case can drag on six, seven months.

Karner says when cases drag on that long, it's a strain on police resources because officers have to show up for all the hearings. Efficiency is one benefit, but Karner says the peer jury program is just a better way to handle cases.

KARNER: In court, attorneys do all the talking. State's attorneys talk for the victim and the victim has no say-so, they have no input. The victim's not able to tell the offender how they feel 'because you took my $35 calculator out of my locker. This is how I feel.' You know, that's not brought up in court.

Karner says venting helps the victim, but it also helps the offender to understand how their actions are affecting others. Homewood, Flossmoor, Matteson - they all have peer jury programs. Park Forest is hoping to start one and other communities look like they may jump on the bandwagon. But Terry McGinnis, the assistant state's attorney who works in Stuttley's overcrowded juvenile courtroom, she says that just won't be enough. She says the area needs an additional courtroom, but there's no room to build one in the Markham courthouse. Nonetheless, she's got some ideas. Tons of ideas actually.

MCGINNIS: Thinking totally outside of the box, there's a school for sale at 147th and Kedzie that has a gym, it has offices, it needs a lot of work, it's an old building, it has a huge parking lot. That could totally be a juvenile center. You could put two, three courtrooms in there if you needed them and then the kids would be going to a juvenile center, they wouldn't be coming to a criminal courts building.

As she talks, McGinnis starts to laugh, realizing that that probably isn't going to happen given the state of the county budget. But she says it needs to because the overcrowding problem isn't going to go away. In fact it's going to get much, much worse next year. That's because currently kids 16 and under are considered juveniles in Illinois. But a new law expands that to everyone under 18 starting January 1 of 2010.

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