Chicago Juvenile Detention Reform Hailed As Novel

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A Chicago juvenile detention reform was cited by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as an example of how some jurisdictions are improving the handling of troubled youth. The Plain Dealer recalls that in the mid-1990s, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Cook County, Il., in federal court on behalf of children crowded into shabby and often dangerous detention homes.

As part of a court agreement, county officials decided to rethink the entire system. They used a three-year, $2.25 million grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a leading child-welfare group. Now, authorities in Chicago say, locking kids up is the last in a long line of options. Instead, they try to keep kids out of detention before they go to court and after they see a judge.

Some options are as simple as calling and notifying kids about their court dates. A more serious move is placing a child with a troubled home life in a shelter. Some kids are referred to one-stop centers scattered throughout the county. The centers provide a range of counseling and education programs. Using existing neighborhood buildings and community centers, court officials work with staffs in the buildings to determine what programs to run. Of the 13,000 kids filtered through Cook County juvenile courts each year, about 65 percent use one of the alternative programs. Between 1996 and 2000, the average number of children in county detention dropped from about 700 a month to about 480.

Each child picked up by police in Cook County is now evaluated by a member of a special team. Is there a problem at home? Does the child have good medical care? Do they go to school? Do they do drugs? The questions are answered before the child is referred to a center, sent to detention or sent home with a court date. For cases where a troubled home life is an issue, the county has several live-in shelters. The boys eat and clean together and build social skills. They wear a “uniform” — only sweatpants and sweatshirts — to show they are equal. They earn privileges for themselves and their group with good behavior. Some of the children say the structure is so positive, they don’t want to go back home.

Cook County gets $150,000 a year from the Casey Foundation for its court workers to travel to other cities and help start programs to keep kids out of detention. Case Western Reserve University Professor Bill Sabol thinks Chicago’s approach is novel because it relies on community groups to help the kids in their neighborhoods. “Meaningful solutions can’t just come from the courts or government-funded places,” he said.


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