Advocates work to reduce detention numbers

Racial disparity is reflected in state statistics on juvenile detention system

By Edith Brady-Lunny
The (Bloomington) Pantagraph

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) - In his three decades working in juvenile probation services, Randy Macak has developed his own system for measuring the success of youth who have contact - brief or extended - with the criminal justice system.

"Recidivism is not the only measurement. Sometimes, you've bettered their lives in some way in the course of working with them. And that means they may have made another mistake, but they've also finished a GED," said Macak, deputy director of McLean County's juvenile court services.

Macak sees little distinction between troubled youth and youth in trouble. In most cases, the problems extend beyond youths to their families.

"Our officers take on the role of social workers," said Macak, helping with everything from utility bills to issues at school. A probation officer with a caseload of 40 children also is dealing with 40 families.

The goal, said Macak, is to keep youth out of the county's juvenile detention center and in community-based services. In 2014, 183 youths between the ages of 10 and 17 were held in McLean County, a detention rate of 10.8 per 1,000 youths, according to the Center for Prevention Research and Development at the University of Illinois. The state average is 8.8 percent per 1,000 youths.

McLean operates one of 16 juvenile county detention centers in the state. Like most of those facilities, McLean also provides temporary confinement for youths from neighboring counties. In the first seven months of 2016, the county admitted 139 youths to the facility, with 54 percent coming from other counties.

Youths 10 years or older can be held in detention under Illinois law. In 2014, 46 children between the ages of 10-11 and another 722 between 12-13 were held across the state as part of 12,000 who were admitted to county facilities.

When a child is taken into custody, a detention hearing must be held in court within 40 hours, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and court holidays. The rule that keeps youth in custody for several days because of weekends and holidays means children wait longer than their adult counterparts who must be brought before a judge within 48 hours - regardless of the calendar.

Elizabeth Clark, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative based in Evanston, supports legislation that would remove the weekend and holiday delay for youths.

"We believe juvenile detention is a broken system in Illinois and we want to find ways to improve things," said Clark, contending the animal rights movement has seen more progress than what's been accomplished for childrens' rights.

Far more difficult to resolve are the racial disparities reflected in statistics in Illinois' juvenile detention system. Statewide, 77 percent of all detention admissions were non-white in 2014, according to a new report from the Juvenile Justice Initiative.

White youth represent 76 percent of the youth population in Illinois, but the rate of detention admissions for white children was about 10 percent in 11 of 102 counties - with only Perry County showing a rate of more than 15 percent for white children.

"Our nation is facing a national crisis of confidence in the justice system, and these profound disparities call the legitimacy of the entire justice system into question," said the study.

In four counties, black children represent less than 20 percent of the youth population but more than 80 percent of the juvenile detention population in those counties.

In McLean County, African American youths represented 68.3 percent of the juvenile census, compared to 2.4 percent for white youth in 2014, based on data in the U of I report.

Research by Macak of the youth seen by probation officers in the past 11 months supports a finding that children from single family households often become entangled in the criminal justice system.

Of the 91 new cases, 86 percent came from a home with a single parent or guardian. Of the 50 African American probationers, 88 percent came from a one-parent household, said Macak.

"Having two parents allows the family to share the stress and the work that needs to be done to help the child," said Macek.

As with adults, mental health issues also are a common challenge for juveniles involved with the courts, said Patrick Keenan-Devlin, executive of the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy. The Evanston-based non-profit clinic helps low-income children and families.

"If you look at the jail populations across the U.S., mental health issues are a uniform factor. We use our detention system as a form of institutionalization for the mentally ill," said Keenan-Devlin.

Upwards of 90 percent of the minors who receive help from the Moran Center have emotional or learning issues, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, said Keenan-Devlin.

A social worker is part of the team that works with a lawyer to address a range of issues, he said. Children who have an outside advocate at school can prosper more than those who face their challenges alone.

Community-based legal clinics bring advice to children and families before situations become serious, he added.

In McLean County, the Center for Youth and Family Solutions partnered with court services to help minors stay on the right track after a mistake that has legal consequences. Those efforts ended in July when the county ended its participation in the state's Juvenile Reploy Program but court services hopes to restore the assistance with a proposed grant through the McLean County Board of Health.

<t4>Clark and other supporters of juvenile justice reform are encouraged by changes the state has seen this year, including a requirement that minors who are suspects in homicide and sexual cases have a lawyer with them during questioning by police.

Another change keeps youths younger than 16 in juvenile court unless they are charged with first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault or aggravated battery with a firearm.

Small changes also can make a difference, said Keenan-Devlin. A state rule that requires youth leaving juvenile prisons to request and pay $1 for an identification card when are released is something the state could easily erase by providing the identification, he said.

Published: Mon, Oct 10, 2016