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Cook County's juvenile detention warehouse

Thursday, September 08, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by James R. "Chip" Coldren
Letter to the Editor

Chicago -- The John Howard Association applauds the Tribune for its Aug. 21 editorial, "A county warehouse for kids." We fully agree the situation at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center demands radical change.

Since the mid-1990s our staff and citizen volunteers have monitored the troublesome conditions at the center. We have published several reports and have called for sweeping changes. Several years ago, our organization, along with other practitioners and advocates, convinced the Circuit Court of Cook County and the Cook County Board of Commissioners to implement a series of reforms, including community-based alternatives to detention that reduced the center's population by several hundred, with an attendant and significant reduction in the state's youth prison population. Kudos to the court and the County Board for their leadership in detention alternative programming. Unfortunately, the reforms never successfully addressed our concerns about conditions inside the detention center.

Several important changes must take place in order to solve the persistent problems at the detention center.

First, it must be brought out from under the County Board and placed under the responsibility of the court . Cook is the only county in Illinois that places its juvenile detention center under the board.

The court is far better equipped to improve conditions in the detention center, given its proximity to the center and to those working on detention standards, along with access to statewide resources including detention staff reimbursements.

Second, all staff positions and the qualifications of current staff must be reviewed and audited. Staff not meeting current professional standards must be removed and replaced. Educational requirements for any detention center staff that have routine contact with youth must be raised to the level of a bachelor's degree.

Third, a new staff and roster management system and policy must be put in place to hold staff accountable and to bring overtime costs under control. We recommended such an overhaul and offered guidance how to accomplish it in two reports delivered to the county ("Staffing and Roster Management Assessment," March 2005, and "Staffing and Roster Management Report," June 2005).

Fourth, strong, progressive leadership from professionals with juvenile justice treatment and management backgrounds must be installed at the detention center.

Fifth, the county should continue to support the many successful efforts of the Cook County Juvenile Court to maintain alternatives to the youth incarceration practices that have kept the center's population at near-capacity levels for several years.

Sixth, the county should do all it can to increase the availability of education and mental health treatment for youth under its care.

Finally, we reference a report submitted by our organization to the county ("Defendant's MOA Implementation Plan, January 2004) that outlines over 60 changes that must be implemented over the next several years to bring the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center into compliance with the Memorandum of Agreement that county officials signed with the American Civil Liberties Union over two years ago.

The John Howard Association continues to monitor conditions at the center with the interests of the children foremost in our minds. We encourage the distribution to the public of the reports on the center that we have made available to county commissioners. We appreciate the attention the Tribune is bringing to this vexing and persistent problem.

James R. "Chip" Coldren
Executive director, The John Howard Association



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