Juvenile detention center population keeps fallingBut reform work not finished, officials say
Monday, August 20, 2012
by Hal Dardick
Cook County has been able to reduce the number of teens locked up in its juvenile detention center, but there's still much to be done before the mission to reform the long-troubled facility is complete, officials said Monday.
Nearly 270 minors who otherwise faced detention for alleged crimes were instead placed in community- and faith-based programs in the past three months, Chief Judge Timothy Evans said. The diversion programs helped the youths with studies, work skills, substance-abuse and mental health issues that led to their trouble in the first place.
"We can address those needs with the children instead of just lock them up and release them at some future date," Evans said in a telephone interview. He praised Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for helping to secure $800,000 to pay for the effort and added that it costs far less than the $616 a day to lock up a youth.
As a result of the new programs, there are on average fewer than 250 youths a day at the juvenile detention center, down about 50 from a year earlier, Preckwinkle said Monday.
That's also down from the peak of 800 a day in the early 2000s and less than the 450 a day five years ago, when a federal court judge appointed national expert Earl Dunlap to take over the center. The goal was to fix its myriad woes, including a history of overcrowding, filthy conditions and abuse of the children it was supposed to help.
On Monday, Preckwinkle spoke to 19 teenagers held at the Near West Side facility. She told them that last December, she concluded that the best long-term solution is to shutter the aging center and set up four to six smaller facilities throughout the county.
"I think that the research has shown that it's better for the young people to be in smaller facilities that are closer to the communities in which they live," Preckwinkle said afterward.
"The less like a prison you can make the detention for the young people, the better off they are," she added. "You don't want the Juvenile Temporary Center to be a pipeline to the Department of Corrections."
Dunlap said Monday that the decades-old facility "is a monstrosity" that is poorly designed for its use and lacks needed technology. Three better-designed regional facilities would be smarter and cost less to run, he said.
Dunlap also said the county needs better ways to treat mentally ill youths, many of whom end up at the center but would be better served elsewhere. That, in turn, would further lower the center's population, he said.
Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the ACLU of Illinois, which filed the federal suit that led to Dunlap's appointment, also praised efforts to lower the population but cautioned that "there's more to be done."
Both Evans and Preckwinkle agreed that more could be done to lower the number of teens at the detention center.
News of the latest drop in the center's population comes as Dunlap, its transitional administrator, is preparing to end his oversight period, most likely near the end of winter. When he departs, Evans will take control of the center, with the County Board holding the purse strings.
Preckwinkle and Commissioner Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago, meanwhile, have proposed setting up an advisory board to keep a spotlight on the needs of children at the center after the departure of Dunlap, their constant champion for the last five years.
Dunlap, noting the crucial role that courts, police and communities play in determining the fate of alleged juvenile offenders, said any such board should focus on the entire juvenile justice system, not just the center.
Preckwinkle agreed. "We need their help not just on this facility, but what we are going to do over the long term," she said.