Children under 13 who are accused of crimes will no longer be locked up in Cook County.

Under a law passed unanimously Wednesday by the Cook County Board of Commissioners, the county will find alternatives to detaining kids arrested in the county.

The ordinance sets a minimum age of 13 for those placed in the county’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center at 1100 S. Hamilton on the Near West Side.

The new law takes effect immediately and puts the county in line with national research saying children under 13 are too young to understand and reason in criminal proceedings and therefore should not be held in custody, advocates for the change said. Last year, only nine 12-year-olds were detained at the center.

Bill sponsor Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, called the change “a very positive step.”

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, sponsored a bill that prevents children under 13 from being detained at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“We need more people to think about younger kids who are kind of lost in the system,” Suffredin said. “These are kids who obviously had problems at school, they weren’t getting the kind of education they were supposed to be getting. They come from families where there’s no support. Maybe this helps us understand how we get more resources to help these children be able to be stronger as they get older.”

Children will be rerouted to alternatives through the state’s Comprehensive Community Based Youth Services, a network of providers charged with providing around-the-clock emergency services for at-risk youth. Those alternatives may include mental health care, crisis stabilization plans or placement in a shelter or foster home.

Studies show that even short detention periods for a child can lead to higher recidivism and increased suicidal thoughts. Also, children who’ve been in detention are 39 percentage points less likely to finish high school than other public school students who come from the same neighborhood, according to the Juvenile Justice Initiative, an Evanston-based advocacy group and a major proponent of the ordinance.

Garien Gatewood, director of policy advocacy for the group, said the passage of the ordinance confirms “that the county is moving toward criminal justice reform.”

“This is a way to stop recidivism, but also a way to stop kids from even getting into the system,” Gatewood said. “Even though the numbers are small, it takes one kid. This is about the next generation and creating a culture change.”
Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Wednesday that “criminal justice reform has always been a priority of my administration and we’re looking for best practices going forward.”