A high school freshman who stole cars is not locked up in a juvenile detention facility but instead sits at a youth-services center in a spirited discussion on a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on police searches. This, says the Christian Science Monitor, is Chicago’s approach to juvenile delinquency, preferring alternatives to detention for pretrial youths not considered dangerous.
The Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice says the number of juveniles held in secure detention rose 72 percent nationwide from 1994 to 2000 while the juvenile crime rate reached its lowest level in 20 years. Most being held are 15 or younger and haven’t been charged with violent crimes.
Critics say detention can turn small-time offenders into worse criminals, or aggravate mental illness or substance abuse. Chicago’s Cook County has cut its detention population nearly in half since 1994, and gets 90 percent of accused juveniles to court on time, crime-free.
Ten years ago, the county’s 498-bed detention center was “bursting at the seams,” says one official, at one point housing 848 kids. The county accepted a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to create alternatives. It developed a screening process that considers factors like the seriousness of the crime committed and prior arrests to decide if a kid really needs to be locked up. Many kids were jailed for missing court dates, so the court started sending reminders, which improved appearances 50 percent. The county developed a range of alternatives to detention, including home-confinement, in which a child is allowed to leave home only for school and a monitoring system by electronic bracelet.
The Monitor says the experiments strike some critics as a softball experiment that doesn’t teach young offenders a sufficient lesson. They worry it puts the community at risk by allowing criminals to remain on the street until their trial. “The devil is in the details,” says Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a victims’ advocacy association in Houston.
Other places emphasizing alternatives over lockup include Portland, Ore., Santa Cruz, Calif., and areas in North Dakota, Idaho, and New Mexico.