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Cook County must reform juvenile justice, national agency says
Report urges demolition of temporary detention center and assails high rate of black detainees

Friday, March 09, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Cynthia Dizikes

Cook County should demolish its long-troubled juvenile temporary detention center and needs to address an array of problematic trends in how it detains youths, such as disproportionately high admission rates for African-Americans, according to a national criminal justice research agency report released Thursday to the Tribune.

The report, researched by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, was commissioned by the Cook County-based Jane Addams Juvenile Court Foundation on behalf of Circuit Court Chief JudgeTimothy Evans, who may take over the facility at the end of 2012.

It also follows a push last year by Board President Toni Preckwinkle to overhaul the juvenile justice system, including sending more youths to group homes instead of the detention center.

"We were really hoping to move the conversation beyond a narrow look at the facility to how do we effectively intervene when young people get in trouble with the law," said Sheila Merry, executive director for the Jane Addams Juvenile Court Foundation.

Although the report noted that many improvements had been made recently at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center — including a significant reduction in the number of youths detained — it stressed that officials should do more.

The county should reduce its total capacity by redirecting youths to community-based alternatives, especially juveniles charged with lesser crimes, the report suggested. The report recommended separating juveniles based on the seriousness of their offense, as well as their sex, age, and mental health needs and replacing the current facility with two or more smaller centers placed in the community. New facilities, however, could cost tens of millions of dollars.

Most "striking," according to the report, was the determination that in Cook County, African-American youths are detained at 46 times the rate of white youths. That is the greatest discrepancy encountered anywhere in the country by the researchers, who recommended that the county conduct a thorough study of the issue.

For decades, the detention center was blasted as a depot where children were locked up in violent, unsanitary, overcrowded conditions. A federal judge appointed renowned juvenile justice expert Earl Dunlap to temporarily take over the facility in 2007. Since then, Dunlap has been lauded for transforming a patronage-based hiring system, bringing in more professional staff and working to reduce the number of children detained.

Still, Dunlap said Thursday that he agreed with the report's recommendations for population reduction and new facilities. But he cautioned that the center would need more money to achieve some of these goals and said reform is needed in other juvenile justice-related agencies, as well as the community.

"Do we have an inappropriate population in the JTDC? Yes. Can the number of kids in the JTDC be reduced? Yes," Dunlap said. "But before we start closing things down, the stakeholders in Cook County need to step up and take responsibility and realize that they have a very serious problem that goes beyond the JTDC."

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