Give young people alternatives to curfews, detention

Our children have a right to expect more from our leaders, especially in the home of the world’s first juvenile court.

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The Cook County Juvenile Center.

The Cook County Juvenile Center.

Sun-Times file photo.

It’s Saturday morning, and outside I can already hear partying from the young people on the private lakefront university near my apartment who are enjoying a university-sponsored end of the year weekend music fest. This will go on late into the night. 

By Sunday evening, there will no doubt be property damage and littering — and possibly some fights. But it is unlikely that any of these older teens will be arrested, let alone jailed, because they are among the privileged older teens in the U.S. who get a pass for misconduct on college campuses. 

They get a pass because they, or their parents, pay tuition to institutions that rely on their patronage. More importantly, they get a pass because, as a society, we view these young people attending a university as having a future — and we do not want to jeopardize that future with a criminal record.

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Yet, just a few miles away in neighborhoods like North Lawndale and Little Village, the young people do not get a pass. Mayor Lori Lightfoot made this clear with an emergency order lowering the curfew for minors from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends. The curfew change was delayed in City Council on Monday, but is expected to pass at the regular meeting on Wednesday.

The punitive lowering of the curfew, along with a prohibition on unaccompanied children in Millennium Park during evenings Thursday through Sunday, flies in the face of evidence, as Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) has pointed out, noting in a recent interview that studies show lowered curfew times don’t decrease crime but have the opposite effect.

It’s also the kind of response that perpetuates racism in the justice system, with Black and Brown children most likely to end up arrested and detained. 

Chicago’s juvenile court was the first juvenile court in the world, setting an international trend to treat children accused of crimes through rehabilitation that would give them a chance for a productive future. 

But the current Cook County juvenile detention center population is overwhelmingly — over 90% — composed of Black and Brown children. And the presiding judge in the county’s juvenile justice division recently told reporters he thinks alternatives to keep children out of detention have gone too far.

It is shocking that the presiding judge in what was the world’s first juvenile court thinks more detention is the answer here. He should know better. 

First, there is a human rights requirement that youth incarceration be a last resort for as short a time as possible. A 2019 global study on deprivation of liberty urged that youth detention be eliminated. The rest of the developed world has ratified this human rights document, and as a result, they typically have safer communities even with far lower youth incarceration rates.

Second, across the U.S., states — including Illinois — are rapidly closing youth prisons based on evidence that community alternatives are more effective at preventing crime.

Finally, over 60 current and former U.S. youth correctional administrators describe youth lockup as “archaic” and urge that the time has come to close all youth prisons, replacing them with close-to-home facilities that are nurturing and have well-trained staff, in the few instances where out-of-home placement is necessary. 

These youth correctional leaders include former Cook County probation and Illinois juvenile prison leaders.

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The U.S. correctional administrators are right in calling for an end to youth lockup, as all the evidence shows that keeping communities safe requires programming and services, not prison and not lower curfew hours. 

We need to give all our children their human right to a safe childhood with the basics of a home, education, food, health care, and a path to adulthood — exactly what the universities give young people. They need a safe space to grow, with leniency along with accountability for mistakes and resources for development. 

Services and programming are the answer, not curfews and detention. Our children have a right to expect more from our leaders, especially in the home of the world’s first juvenile court.

Elizabeth Clarke, J.D., is the founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative.

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