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Is there a problem here?

Friday, September 09, 2005
Chicago Tribune

In their first public discussion of the waste and patronage abuses that exist at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, county commissioners Thursday yammered, shouted, insulted each other and tossed around accusations of political posturing. What a performance it was.

A Tribune editorial page series has detailed that more than 7 percent of the staffers at the detention center have criminal convictions, that kids live in filthy conditions, employees spend their days standing idle and rack up astonishing sums of overtime pay. The primary qualification for a top job is having a political connection to County Board President John Stroger.

A handful of commissioners tried to respond in honest fashion, pressing resolutions to conduct an independent management audit of the detention center and to assemble an independent panel to review operations there.

Stroger's response? He said that it was his job to defend the detention center.

In a comical, six-hour board meeting, Stroger and several other commissioners went to incredible lengths to ignore the problems staring them in the face. A sampling of the discourse:

Stroger objected to the charge that some employees at the center got their jobs through political connections. "Stop beating up on these people who I hired! I know how everybody in this room got their jobs."

Commissioner Joan Murphy objected to the resolution calling for an independent management audit of the center: "What does this do to the morale of employees over there?"

Commissioner Bobbie Steele objected to the wording of the resolution, which pointed to allegations of wrongdoing. "I feel strongly not only about the inflammatory language but about the liability here if this is found to be untrue."

Commissioner Deborah Sims objected to the length of the board meeting: "It's 3 p.m. and I haven't eaten lunch!"

At least Commissioner Earlean Collins, who heads the committee that addresses detention center issues, says she wants immediate hearings to investigate problems at the center.

Some improvements are under way at the center with the oversight of Jerry Robinson, the new superintendent who started this summer. A biometric time clock will be installed requiring employees to sign in and out with their fingerprints. The center's nine shifts will be reduced to five. There will be better scrutiny of overtime.

These are welcome actions. But they're like aiming a peashooter at the problem when a bazooka is needed.

An average of 450 youths, ages 10 to 17, live at the detention center, which is designed to hold them in a secure facility until their cases are adjudicated and to help them turn their lives around. "If we don't do something to help them now," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, "soon there are going to be 450 adults in penitentiaries in this state."

That wasn't political posturing. That was common sense.

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