More than 100 years ago, the leaders of Cook County did something right, something so innovative that the rest of the nation followed. The innovation was the nation’s first court system for juveniles where children would not be judged next to adult offenders and might receive rehabilitation instead of incarceration.
Cook County understood that children were not pint-sized adults and that the public would be safer in the long run if the underlying causes for children’s illegal actions were addressed.
Cook County’s cutting-edge reputation is long gone, and the nation looks elsewhere to learn about best practices to change juvenile behaviors and help youth succeed in life.
My life story was changed for the better due to maturation and rehabilitation, but the rehabilitation came too late to avoid spending almost 25 years in prison.
Only a change in leadership will allow rehabilitation to return as a top focus of juvenile courts in Cook County. That means ending the reign of Michael P. Toomin as the presiding Judge of the Cook County Juvenile Court. Other than lip service, Toomin has demonstrated little interest in making rehabilitation a pillar of the juvenile court.
Exhibit A in the case against Toomin is his response — or lack of response — to the impact of the current pandemic on youth held at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
Imagine you’re a teenager who knows a deadly pandemic has enveloped your city and the entire world, but you’re in a cell and can’t go home to be with your family. Imagine being told that the world has stopped, the schools have closed, jobs are shut down and for the safety of everyone in the world, we should all go home to stop the spread of this disease.
Prisons are labeled petri dishes for the virus, but you continue to sit in a cell well beyond your expected release date.
At the same time, attorneys for these youth are frustrated, too. They filed emergency motions to bring the youth before judges and ask for release under conditions aimed at keeping the public safe, but the hearings aren’t allowed.
Youth in the Cook County JTDC didn’t have to imagine this. They lived it. Many youth were denied a right to have their detention status reviewed during the initial COVID-19 outbreak because Toomin did not think the impending pandemic and the spread of the deadly disease was an emergency that required youth potentially to be released to their families.
Even Timothy Evans, Chief Judge of Cook County, was thwarted by Toomin. “I’m the one who has to determine which motions are emergency motions, which I do on a daily basis,” Toomin told a reporter this spring.
Eventually, Evans did prevail and the youth did receive their day in court.
But why does Toomin make fair justice so difficult to obtain in Cook County?
Exhibit B in the case against Toomin is his incomprehensible resistance to Redeploy Illinois, a state grant program providing millions of dollars for youth services in 40 counties – but not for Cook County youth because Toomin stands in the way of applying for the funds. In exchange for the grants, Redeploy Illinois requires counties to use the money to provide local rehabilitative services to youth and to reduce the number youth the counties send to state prisons.
Sadly, Cook County has refused multiple times over the last 10 years to take part in the juvenile Redeploy Illinois grant program. Why? Michael P. Toomin won’t pledge to try to reduce the number of kids he sends to prison and in the same breath will complain about the lack of available services. Ironically, the adult criminal justice system understood the benefits and welcomed the benefits of Adult Redeploy in Cook County.
Yes, the overall juvenile detention population has decreased over the years, but this was done in spite of Toomin and without much support. The reforms that have led to a decrease in population came from the work of other leaders in the county and state. Judge Toomin has impeded the work, but more importantly, he’s been disastrous for the youth in Cook County.
In the next election, voters will have an opportunity to say “no” to Toomin and vote against his retention as a judge. It’s not too late to rehabilitate the Cook County Juvenile Court and once again make it a leader in juvenile justice reform.
Marshan Allen is a criminal justice reform advocate and the recipient of the Chicago Bar Association’s 2019 Liberty Bell Award.
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