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Cook County Juvenile Court in Markham is among nation's busiest
Officials say overwhelming caseload keeps court from protecting victims and helping young offenders not be adult criminals

Friday, August 14, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Kim Janssen

It was the second time Antwan had been arrested for car theft in three weeks.

Wearing an unironed shirt and loose tie, the 13-year-old swaggered into Juvenile Court in Markham. He'd barely squeezed into a scrum of attorneys, deputies and social workers when Judge Michael Stuttley froze him.

"You'd better find a new profession -- you ain't too good at stealing cars," the Cook County judge boomed. The high school freshman grinned.

"All right, next case!" Stuttley shouted as the clerk yelled Antwan's next court date. And with that, he was shoved out through a waiting room holding 100 other juveniles, back onto the streets for another month.

Total court time to deal with the troubled teen: about 20 seconds.

That, typically, is how justice works in 6th District Juvenile Court, which some believe is the nation's busiest courtroom for children -- busier than the most crowded child courts in Chicago and even Los Angeles.

More than 2,000 south suburban children accused of robbery, rape, drug abuse and murder have pending cases before Stuttley, easily twice the number of cases as at the four other suburban Juvenile Courts in Cook County combined, and more than are on the docket countywide in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry or Will Counties.

Even Chicago's busiest Juvenile Court judge hears half as many cases as Markham, as do the most crowded child courts in Los Angeles, the nation's child crime capital.

The overwhelming numbers seriously damage the court's ability to protect victims and intervene in young offenders' lives before they become hardened career criminals, authorities said.

"We're bursting at the seams," said Stuttley, who along with the state's attorney and the Juvenile Court's presiding judge, is calling for more courtrooms to deal with suburban child crime.

Though up to 120 children a day come before Stuttley in a basement courtroom that is a little larger than a double garage, the judge still encourages parents to turn in out-of-control kids if they think they're committing crimes.

"If that's what it's going to take to save these young folk from prison, that's what we have to do," Stuttley said.

If the number of cases is daunting, the details of specific cases are appalling, even in the outrage-weary world of criminal justice.

A 14-year-old Sauk Village mom who hid her pregnancy, killed her baby and dumped the body in the trash; a 13-year-old Midlothian girl who took her stepdad's pistol to school, stole a car and led police on a wild chase; a 12-year-old Lansing boy nobody wants because he allegedly raped his little brother, was taken in by his aunt, then also abused her dog.

Children appearing in Juvenile Court are under 17 yet are prosecuted in a similar way to adult cases. But they have additional privacy protections and face relatively lenient sentences.

By sending the children to juvenile detention, counseling, drug rehabilitation, night classes and other programs -- even forcing them to wear a shirt and tie, like Antwan -- the court aims to change children's outlooks before it's too late.

Though violent crimes are prioritized and children do eventually get the court's considered attention, there isn't time to deal with everyone promptly, meaning hundreds of children appear for a few seconds every month, only to have their cases continued without action.

The inability to act swiftly in lesser cases only makes it likelier that children will progress to more serious crime before they can be stopped, Assistant State's Atty. Terri McGinnis said.

The problem was so severe in January that arrested children had to wait five months to make their first court appearance.Cutting the wait for new cases to a more normal six weeks then meant it took longer to deal with kids already in the system, McGinnis said.

"Kids need consequences, but if they're arrested twice since they were last in court, they can't even remember what they're being punished for," she said.

Stuttley, Presiding Judge Curtis Heaston and court staff blame the backlog on the migration of poor tenants from Chicago's housing projects to the south suburbs. McGinnis said the situation really got out of control about three years ago, "around the time the Robert Taylor Homes were demolished and we started seeing kids with Chicago backgrounds."

Though that is also a commonly heard explanation among police and some south suburban mayors, Chicago Housing Authority chief executive Lewis Jordan angrily rejects it as "stereotyping." CHA statistics indicate that of 4,100 families tracked since the demolition of projects began in 1999, only 24 have been displaced to the suburbs.

Whatever caused the increase, the map determining which cases are heard where in Cook County closely follows a racial line dividing wealthier, majority-white southwest suburbs from poorer, majority-black south suburbs. It hasn't been substantially redrawn since Markham Courthouse was built in 1978.

Several solutions have been proposed, but none have gotten off the ground.

A recent effort to divert more minor cases into "restorative justice" programs -- informal, quasi-judicial hearings staffed by community volunteers -- has yet to bear fruit.

Reassigning one of the two "floating" Juvenile Court judges in Chicago who don't have a courtroom or caseload of their own seems simpler. But the process has been tortured. Heaston said the Markham Courthouse also is overrun with adult cases, so there's no space for a second juvenile courtroom.

Courtrooms are available in southwest suburban Bridgeview, but that courthouse is inaccessible to poor south suburbanites who rely on public transport, Stuttley said. And while there's a new juvenile courtroom in Harvey -- one of the south suburbs' most disadvantaged, crime-ridden communities -- it's never been used and can't be because it's in a building owned by the state, not the county, he said.

Heaston said the county's budget crisis means a fix "isn't going to happen any time soon."

A state law that takes effect in 2010, allowing 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to move from the adult system to youth courts, is likely to keep the waiting room even busier.

"It's crazy in here," said Linda Dees, a Chicago Heights mother at Markham for her son's criminal damage case.

Like most parents appearing in Stuttley's courtroom, Dees is grateful for any help she can get.

"These are our children," she said, motioning to the crowd of bored teens behind her. "We need more judges."

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