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The lifelong damage we do in Cook County when we jail kids as young as 10

Children accidentally called me “mommy” or asked me to read to them from books like “The Cat in the Hat.”

The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago
The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago
Sun-Times file photo

Last year, the Cook County Board passed a law prohibiting jail for children ages 10 to 13.

But last week, an Illinois appellate court ruled that the county law conflicts with state law, so judges can continue to jail these young children.

In nearly a decade of work as an educator at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, I taught many children who were 10 to 13 years old and learned just how damaging a stay in Cook County’s “Audy Home” can be.

I taught children who were so small that their jumpsuits dragged on the floor and their sleeves were too long for their tiny arms. I met children who so desperately missed their mothers that they accidentally called me “mommy,” or asked me to sit beside them and read to them from books like “The Cat in the Hat.”

A wealth of research shows how damaging detention can be to the entire life trajectory of a child.

It is time for Cook County to develop meaningful alternatives to detention for children, some as young as ten, who are being held while awaiting trial — not even yet convicted of a crime.

The JTDC frequently is used as a shelter for youth who are awaiting placement in housing or foster care. There is simply nowhere else for them to go. This year, there are about 240 children between the ages of 10 and 17 detained in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center on any given night.

Fewer than 50 of these children are there for serious charges. Most could be released without any threat to pblic safety.

Jailing children should not be our default solution to care for youth who have no safe shelter. And Cook County is paying dearly.

It costs $520 per day to detain one child in the JTDC, but last year 2,764 children were detained, and in the first quarter of this year 578 children were detained. The average length of stay this year is 34 days for males and 22 days for females.

This means that, on average, to detain one young person in the JTDC before trial costs taxpayers $17,680. This adds up to well over $30 million per year that could be used to create more supportive structures for these children, solutions that actually improve safety.

Youth who are detained are more likely to drop out of school, which in turn increases their likelihood of being rearrested and returning to jail. Jailing youth creates and perpetuates a vicious cycle. Studies show a strong correlation between the number of days a young person spends in pretrial detention, and higher rates of re-arrest and re-incarceration.

To be held in jail or pretrial detention has long-term consequences for a young person, who may be forced to drop out of school or lose a job. Education and employment are major preventers of repeat arrests, and help youth transition into productive adult life. Research shows that, with access to education and employment, most young people “age out” of criminal behavior by their mid-20s.

So what is intended as a strategy to increase public safety is having the opposite effect, raising criminal activity, arrest rates and the number of youth disconnected from school and work.

Holding children in pretrial detention also is discriminatory. In Cook County, black youth are detained at significantly higher rates compared to all other racial and ethnic groups. In 2018, 70% of all admissions to the JTDC were black youth. Latinx youth made up 14% of admissions, and only 10% of admissions were white.

The devastating impact of incarceration for all youth is even more extreme for black youth, as it is compounded with other social factors that are the result of historic and current racism. Education, work and future economic opportunities are jeopardized, and this has broader implications for a young person’s family, community and future.

Children in detention centers are also vulnerable to rape and abuse. In the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Survey of Youth in Custody, about 10% reported being victimized by staff, and another 2.6% reported being assaulted by other incarcerated youth. Most young people held in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center have already experienced trauma, including sexual abuse and violence.

This is compounded by JTDC’s high usage of solitary confinement — a practice deemed torture by the United Nations — that leads to depression, anxiety and higher rates of suicide. There were 1,000 more punitive confinements in 2017 than in 2016, even as the average population dropped about 20 percent.

It’s been said that one can judge the morality of a nation by the way it treats its children.

Detention, solitary confinement, isolation and abuse cannot conceivably lead children and young adults in a healthy and life-affirming direction. All the more true for children held while awaiting trial. If we are presumed innocent unless proven guilty, why are we punishing children in ways that have been shown to mark them and damage them for life?

It’s time for Cook County to invest in alternatives to youth detention that are rooted in developmental psychology and equity, and that will actually create safety and justice for all Chicagoans.

Amanda Klonsky is an educator and scholar whose work focuses on expanding access to education for people in jails and prisons. You can find her at www.amandaklonsky.net or @aklonsky1 on twitter.

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