Editorial: Justice for juveniles
Editorials August 21, 2012 8:18PM
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle talks to teens at the county’s juvenile justice center on Monday. | Al Podgorski~Sun-TimeS
Updated: September 23, 2012 6:14AM
Cook County’s juvenile justice center has made big strides in recent years. It’s cleaner and safer, its staff is more responsive and its school is more effective.
But improvements haven’t gone far enough, and probably can’t at the center’s current location. The facility at 1100 S. Hamilton has a poor design that invites problems.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said she would like to blow the place up, and she’s right. But she doesn’t yet know where she will get the money for a better option — four to six smaller centers around the county that would keep young offenders closer to their neighborhoods and give them smaller class sizes.
The aging center houses youths up to age 16 who are awaiting adjudication of their cases. A decade ago, the West Side juvenile center housed an average of 800 detainees, but that number has dropped to about 250. According to Chief Cook County Judge Tim Evans, many young detainees have been steered into community or faith-based programs.
That’s progress, but according to Ben Wolf, associate legal director of the ACLU of Illinois, too many kids still are brought in for reasons that shouldn’t justify detention. With the right programs in place in the communities and the right attitude by more judges, the number of detainees can be brought down further.
That doesn’t mean there still won’t be challenges. Some of the detainees are charged with serious violent offenses, and some belong to gangs, which leads to fights between members of rival groups. But smaller, better-designed facilities could ease those problems as well.
As a result of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the federal courts appointed a monitor five years ago, Earl Dunlap, who is widely credited with solving many of the juvenile center’s problems.
But at some point, the federal courts will decide it’s time to end their involvement. To prepare for that day, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer is backing the creation of an advisory board that will push for continued improvements. The County Board is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Sept. 10, and we hope the vote is affirmative.
For many of these youthful offenders, there’s a better answer than simply locking them up.
The county should keep working to make that better answer a reality.