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Editorial: Cook County is locking up too many juveniles

Updated: April 2, 2013 6:25AM

Too many juveniles who goof up in Cook County are being locked up, and the numbers are on the rise.

When 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in a South Side park in January, Chicago seemed to wake up to the horror of its high homicide rate, demanding something be done. This editorial page was, and will remain, among the most forceful voices calling for real action.

But action doesn’t mean overreaction, or a counterproductive reaction, which is what we fear we’re seeing now. The nightly population in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center is climbing again after years of falling, and most of the additional young people are there for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

Last year, according to the Chicago Tribune, an average of 257 detainees were held each night. But that number jumped to 278 the day after Hadiya’s shooting, averaged 266 in January and 273 in the first 20 days of February.

Who are these young people? Do they belong in detention? For their sake and Chicago’s, we’d like to know. It may be that the police are arresting juveniles more aggressively, perhaps too aggressively. It may be that judges are more reluctant now to put youths in alternative programs. No judge wants to be the one who releases into the street the killer of another Hadiya.

A wealth of research, however, concludes that the best way to reduce urban crime in the long run is not to lock up such offenders, but to supervise and treat them in their communities, often using electronic monitoring. Incarcerating low-level offenders — drug abusers, prostitutes, small-change thieves and the like — only makes it more likely they will become hardened and violent criminals. Some detainees likely were bounced into “juvie jail” for a minor infraction of their probation, such as skipping school.

“When you take nonviolent, low-level offenders away from school and their families and lock them up, you increase the chance of more crime,” said Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director for the ACLU of Illinois. “It’s expensive, counterproductive and dangerous to the community.”

If we’re serious about combating violent crime in Chicago, we had better get smart about it, even in times of high emotions.

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