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The promise of juvenile court

Keith Cozart AKA Chief Keef leaves Cook County Juvenile Court 1100 S. HamiltStreet following hearing Wednesday October 17 2012.

Keith Cozart, AKA Chief Keef, leaves Cook County Juvenile Court, 1100 S. Hamilton Street following hearing, Wednesday, October 17, 2012. I John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 24, 2012 6:12AM

Dozens of lawyers won their first elections as judges this month, and they will soon experience the sensation of viewing the courtroom from the other side of the bench and hearing the words “your honor” directed at them.

These new judges may not have given it much thought, but many of them will begin their judicial service largely out of the public view. They’re not going to preside over headline-grabbing murder trials or referee disputes involving multi-million dollar lawsuits.

Instead, many will preside over juvenile court, the one courtroom where the public and press are not welcome and a good number of the accused aren’t old enough to shave.

It’s a good place for a first-time judge to hone listening skills and to learn how to manage a courtroom. Some judges are eager to get juvenile court behind them and move on to adult trials. Others, like me, maintain a connection to juvenile court throughout their careers.

Juvenile court has its share of frustrations and heartbreak but also the potential for great reward, especially in a small community like mine where you see the same teenagers grow into men and women and begin to raise their own families.

Many times I would go home after a day in juvenile court and think over and over again about the young people who had been in my courtroom and too often wished I could have ordered an alternative short of a juvenile prison. Even if the child’s crimes were not violent, prison sometimes was the only way the child might find the counseling and therapies to change that behavior. But rehabilitation in prison was no guarantee, did not involve families and put the youth in contact with some of the state’s most violent and troubled teenagers.

Fortunately, that lack of options began to change my last year on the bench.

Redeploy Illinois has made it possible to assess and screen all youth referred by the court or probation officers. Once we know what services are appropriate to meet each youth’s needs, they attend therapy sessions, sometimes in their homes, and they are sent to residential mental health or substance abuse treatment when necessary.

The Redeploy Illinois program requires participating counties to agree to reduce commitments to juvenile prison by 25 percent in exchange for new state funds for local youth services. Statewide, the Redeploy counties have reduced commitments by 51 percent — more than doubling the target and allowing the state to avert more than $40 million in potential incarceration costs.

Unfortunately, not every county has access to Redeploy Illinois services yet. But the proven cost effectiveness should help convince state leaders to expand the program.

George W. Timberlake was a trial court judge in Illinois for 23 years and remains active in promoting juvenile justice reform since his retirement in 2006.

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