When a juvenile justice diversion center does more harm than good, close it

The purpose of JISC was to keep kids who screw up, but mostly just need help, from getting sucked into the juvenile justice system. It hasn’t worked out that way.

SHARE When a juvenile justice diversion center does more harm than good, close it

The Juvenile Intervention Support Center, 3900 S. California Ave.


When happens when a teen gets caught stealing a shirt from a store or fighting with a classmate or carrying an illegal drug?

It depends on who and where.

Historically in the United States, and to this day, a white kid from a comfortable family in the suburbs might get a stern warning before being sent home with Mom and Dad. There might be a fine involved.

A Black kid from a poor family in the city might find himself under arrest, riding in the backseat of a cop car, on his way to being fingerprinted.

One kid gets a good scare. The other gets a criminal record.

In the criminal justice field, this injustice is a part of what’s often called the “school to prison pipeline” for minority kids, and 14 years ago the Chicago Police tried to do something about it. CPD, in cooperation with a city agency that arranges social services, opened an “intervention and support” center for these kids in an old police station in the Brighton Park neighborhood.

The purpose of the center was to keep kids who screw up — but who are by no means high-risk offenders — from getting sucked into the juvenile justice system. Fewer kids would get criminal records. More kids and their families would get help.

Except it hasn’t worked out that way.

Kiddie cop station

The Juvenile Intervention and Support Center, at 39th Street and California Avenue, has been a bust, as best as anybody can tell given its poor record-keeping. It should be shut down and replaced.

The center has worked more like a kiddie cop station than a diversion program, and there’s a possibility it has made matters worse, not better, for some of the 3,000 young people delivered there annually.

The crying need for alternatives to cops and courts remains as loud as ever, though, and there are diversion programs elsewhere that Chicago should seek to replicate. The best ones, such as one in Miami, are not predominantly run by the police, but by social service agencies. They don’t make a habit of handcuffs. Or fingerprints. Or criminal records.

Chicago’s program, referred to as JISC, has been excoriated for years by juvenile justice reformers, who complain that transparency at the center is so poor it’s impossible to even know if kids are being helped or hurt. The criticism came to a head in February when City Inspector General Joe Ferguson, recalling the sight of kids handcuffed to bars in empty rooms, concluded in a scathing report that JISC clearly fails to use the best practices for youth diversion.

Then, on Tuesday, the city department responsible for arranging social services at JISC, at a cost of $4.8 million a year, walked away from the center, saying the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“We are looking forward to embracing new, creative and evidence-driven approaches” to “limiting youth contact with law enforcement,” Lisa Morrison Butler, head of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, said at a hearing. “Tinkering around the edges will no longer satisfy the standards of best practices or the needs of Chicago’s young people.”

We could not agree more. JISC is a noble experiment that has failed. Chicago should move on.

If it swims and quacks like a duck...

The center’s problems begin with its location.

The whole point of a diversion program is to avoid treating kids like apprentice criminals, yet above the door at JISC, in big blue letters, are the words: “Police Station.”

“The city can’t just order the sign shop to paint ‘Juvenile Intervention and Support Center’ on the door and pretend you’ve changed anything other than the sign on the door,” Julie Biehl, director of Northwestern University’s Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Children and Family Justice Center, told us. “The JISC is a police station and nothing more. “

From there, things get no better. Most of the kids get criminal records — they are charged with a crime — even if they eventually are sent home. In the first nine months of 2018, WBEZ found, only four kids were released without being charged. Sixty percent ended up going to court.

Defenders of JISC argue that the kids sent to court probably had it coming; they had committed serious crimes. But if that was the case, why were they sent to JISC in the first place? The center is intended for youths who have done the normal stupid stuff — like fighting or vandalism — that might get them a school suspension.

We argued last week that posting police officers in schools too often leads to the criminalization of bad behavior by young people who, in reality, may be deeply traumatized and in need of help — not punishment. JISC, we fear, might be doing the same.

A better model of juvenile justice diversion begins with dropping the threat of criminal charges. In Miami, the police are more likely to issue “civil citations” to get kids into its diversion program. Social workers, family counselors and psychologists take it from there.

As a society, how should we treat other people’s children?

With the patience, compassion and belief in second chances that we treat our own.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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