Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle once vowed to “blow up” the juvenile jail — viewed by some as a poster child for everything wrong with the U.S. approach to youth justice, located on Chicago’s West Side.
Nearly two-years later, the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, which was a real-life house of horrors for young inmates until the feds took it over in 2007, is still standing.
In fact, its population is likely to boom.
Under a state law that went into effect this month, newly charged 17-year-olds will no longer be held at the overcrowded adult jail. That comes on top of stepped up police tactics that have swept a large number of kids off the streets, said Earl Dunlap, the federally-mandated administrator brought on to reform the facility.
“You will see the numbers skyrocket,” said Dunlap, estimating that by spring the facility at 1100 S. Hamilton could shoot from its Sunday population of 267 to the 382 inmate maximum.
Preckwinkle had hoped to draw down the population and close unused wings of the facility in preparation of moving inmates to smaller regional facilities.
“That will be an enormously difficult thing to accomplish,” said Ben Wolf, the associate legal director for the ACLU of Illinois. The group sued Cook County in 1999 over conditions at the juvenile jail — depicted in court filings as a rat-infested facility, where kids in filthy clothing were abused by staff and encouraged to fight each other to solve disputes.
“It just makes it more challenging because there are a lot more kids,” said Wolf, who added that reformers have “made a great deal of progress improving the conditions” at the jail.
In an emailed statement, Preckwinkle said she remains committed to shifting to a corrections model that would place the 10 to 17-year-old inmates in smaller regional facilities.
“Rest assured that … juveniles housed there have not been forgotten,” Preckwinkle said in the statement. “I still believe these types of facilities are not the best place to hold young people and I would much rather see smaller facilities holding a smaller number of youth.”
The reality, however, is that the juvenile jail will not likely be going anywhere anytime soon.
“Taking into consideration all the political upheaval … you’re looking at a decade,” Dunlap said.
In addition to the cost of building the facilities, local residents won’t likely be thrilled with the idea of juvenile arrestees moving to their neighborhood, said Commissioner Peter Silvestri.
“I just don’t know that there is the political will to do it in the long run,” said Silvestri, a Republican, who is vice chairman of the county board’s Law Enforcement committee.
Still, Dunlap said the jail has professionalized and reformed in many ways with the help of Preckwinkle. A federal judge overseeing the reforms is expected to shift control back to Cook County sometime in the coming months.
“Now, more than ever … we need to move away from this one-stop shopping albatross called the [Juvenile Temporary Detention Center],” Dunlap said.
But there are other roadblocks standing in the way of Preckwinkle’s vow to “blow up” the juvenile jail.
For starters, closing the aging facility depends on several factors beyond Preckwinkle’s control.
“It’s not like we can say ‘lets not arrest anybody,’ ” said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a Democrat.
The population could be drawn down if more juveniles were released or entered into alternative programs, Dunlap and Preckwinkle have said. As is, about 40 percent of the population stays at the juvenile center for seven or fewer days, Dunlap said.
But judges ultimately determine the length of time juvenile inmates are sentenced and whether or not they are allowed to enter programs that offer alternatives to jail.
“The best thing would be for judges to make better decisions about who has to be detained,” said Wolf, of the ACLU. “Cook County locks up far more children than it has to.”
Then there’s the inevitable transition of control of the juvenile jail from federal hands to Chief Judge Timothy Evans, as mandated under state law.
However, future changes to how juvenile justice is administered could be complicated by the ongoing feud between Preckwinkle and Evans, who did not respond to a request for comment. The two have locked horns recently over court funding and judges’ caseloads.
“It’s no secret that Preckwinkle and Evans don’t get along with each other,” Dunlap said. “That will prove to be a negative ultimately.”