Youths want justice

By Vanessa Morton

Chants of “Reduce the population with youth participation!” and signs that read “Put me on a bracelet, I still won’t make it!” filled the Cook County Building as youth advocates made their way to the office of County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

The young advocates rallied on Nov. 30 to call attention to Cook County’s juvenile justice system.

The support was organized by the Audy Home Campaign, which is led by youth leaders from organizations such as Generation Y/Center for Change and Fearless Leading by Youth.

“We are here today because Cook County is passing a budget that will take money out of the detention center and put more money into alternatives that should be helping the youth, and we’re also here to make sure helping the youth actually happens,” said Darrius Lightfoot, youth leader for Fearless Leading by Youth.

The campaign is aimed at developing the leadership and voice of those who have been directly impacted by juvenile incarceration, and at taking the lead in transforming the system to help other youth develop their full potential.

In order to transform the system, one of the campaign’s current objectives is to improve conditions at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center—the largest in the country that serves mostly as a pre-trial holding facility.

According to data provided by the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center admitted 5,271 youths in 2010, and of those detained, approximately 83 percent were black, while more than 11 percent were Latino.

Much criticism from the youth focused on the detention facility being outdated and unsanitary. However, improvements have been made since 2007, when the campaign first came together, representatives said.

According to the youth leaders, the idea is to make the centers more bearable, but to do it with the ultimate intention of shutting them down.

In terms of making the detention center more humane, the campaigners have demanded that staff be more responsive to the youth in terms of their different needs, for the education to be top quality, for more access to recreation and quality food for the ones who are detained.

But the youth’s demands go further than asking for a better quality detention center. They’re ultimately seeking alternatives to shut down the facility and supersede it with community-based programs.

“I was formerly part of the juvenile justice system, and I can honestly say that it didn’t help me very much,” said Chris Bufford, youth leader for the C2 youth group. “The thing that really helped me become a better citizen and the thing that really changed me was a community-based organization. [It] was able to provide me with holistic services that were able to address all of my needs.”

The youths also suggested counseling, health and economic services, which would replace “low road” alternatives, such as the electronic home monitoring system. And according to Juliana Stratton, executive director of the Cook County Judicial Advisory Council, the youths’ voices are not being ignored.

“Preckwinkle is very committed to juvenile justice reform and making sure that [during] the next year, the goal is to reduce the population of the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center,” Stratton said during the rally. “We will be looking at a full spectrum of different alternatives that will meet the needs of the youth and make sure that people are welcomed back into their communities and that they can find the adequate services to succeed and not end up back into the detention centers.”

In late October, Preckwinkle announced her commitment to reduce the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center’s population, which was part of her 2012 budget plan.

According to the budget, the county is investing in alternatives to lower the population, which would enable one of the nine Juvenile Temporary Detention Center facilities to close down by June 2012, ultimately saving $1.3 million.

Currently, the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center is the most extreme and expensive option in a continuum of response and “not particularly effective at lowering recidivism,” according to Cook County’s 2012 budget sheet.

Centers house an average of 300 to 350 juveniles per day, and each detainee costs $616 per day, or $225,000 per year, which is more than the cost of a four-year education at a private university. However, according to Preckwinkle’s budget plan the county aims to lower the detention population within two years by investing in alternatives.

According to Stratton, a meeting has been scheduled for Dec. 22, for a group of youth leaders from the campaign to visit county offices to discuss ideas for bettering the juvenile justice system.