County jail for kids could be facing change

The president of the Cook County Board says she wants the large central jail closed in favor of scattered site smaller facilities in neighborhoods kids come from.

August 22, 2012

By Linda Paul

(WBEZ/Linda Paul)
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle talks with youth at the county's juvenile jail.

When Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle met with kids incarcerated at the county’s juvenile jail earlier this week, she told them something that may have surprised them: She wants to shut the place down.

The Juvenile Temporary Detention Center — or JTDC — is basically the county’s jail for kids. Many of the young people there are waiting for trial or have violated terms of their probation, for instance, by missing multiple court dates.

Preckwinkle wants to replace the county’s juvenile jail with four to six smaller, neighborhood facilities for kids who need to be detained. “If we can keep them out of  places like this and get them intensive counseling and educational support and drug treatment,” she said, “ that’s a much better alternative than putting them in this place.”

About 10 years ago the daily population at the detention center was more than 800 kids per day. Today, through the use of alternatives to detention, that population is down to around 250 per day.

Each day that a young person stays at the detention center costs the county $616. The majority of youth stay less than a month. Preckwinkle likes to point out that maintaining that JTDC bed comes to almost $225,000 annually — the equivalent of four years of education at a prestigious university.

After her session with kids, when reporters asked Preckwinkle if a handful of smaller community facilities would cost the county less, she bristled. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just think it’s a better idea to have small ones. So we should figure out how to do it.”

In a couple weeks, at their September 10 meeting, county commissioners will likely decide whether to create a volunteer board that would recommend new policies for the detention center. It hasn’t been decided yet who will appoint the new board.

Meanwhile, other changes are coming to the JTDC. Five years ago a U.S. federal court judge appointed Earl Dunlap to run the detention center, which was tarnished with allegations of mistreatment of youth and unsanitary living conditions.

According to the acting director of the jail, the center is getting close to compliance with various court orders for improvements. So Preckwinkle’s office is working on a transition plan that could see Dunlap leaving by early spring, and a new director being appointed.