In September 2018, when the Cook County Board of Commissioners outlawed placing children younger than 13 in the county’s juvenile jail, advocates cheered the move. One group put out a press release in which Democratic Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin said the ordinance would “prevent young children from being scarred by confinement.”
But then, just about a month later, the county’s top juvenile judge made a decision to keep two 12-year-old boys in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. In the ruling Judge Michael Toomin said the county’s new law conflicted with state law and judges were not obligated to follow it.
On Wednesday afternoon, an Illinois appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments on that decision, and whether the county is allowed to ban judges from placing young kids in jail.
Juvenile justice advocates and experts acknowledged the number of children under 13 who are admitted to the county’s juvenile jail is low — there are none inside currently. But they said it is essential to prevent any young children from being placed in jail because confinement can have long-lasting negative effects.
“Especially when we're talking about children so young, the likelihood that they experienced profound trauma that affects them the rest of their lives is something that we need to think very carefully about,” said Lisa Jacobs, program manager for Loyola University’s Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice.
Through a spokesman, Toomin declined to comment, citing an Illinois Supreme Court rule prohibiting judges from weighing in on pending cases.
In his decision, Toomin wrote that none of the juvenile court judges “subscribe to the notion that detention is an appropriate placement for young minors, particularly those who are 12 years of age or younger.”
However, he said the county had created an “unfunded mandate” for the juvenile court judges by banning jail but not creating sufficient alternatives when detention is an “immediate and urgent necessity.”
Toomin wrote that “a minimal number of juveniles” who come before county judges are younger than 13.
“The few that do appear before our judges are often heavy hitters facing charges of armed robbery and other serious charges,” Toomin wrote.“We lament the county board’s failure to provide any viable structural alternative to the secure detention available in the [juvenile jail].”
Juvenile Justice Initiative President Elizabeth Clarke called Toomin’s decision “a shocking ruling,” in particular his characterization of so-called “heavy hitters” under the age of 13.
“These are such punitive reactions to young children who are in conflict with the law, as opposed to individualized case plans and resources,” Clarke said.
Clarke waved away Toomin’s concern about a lack of suitable alternatives for young kids who repeatedly get in trouble.
“I think it's a lack of imagination or lack of coordination of resources,” Clarke said. “So I do think that that's critical to continue to work on so that the judges are aware of the resources that are available and how to access them.”
Suffredin, the county commissioner, said he too disagrees with Toomin.
“We have a number of beds that are not in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, that are in group homes and within individual agencies that have resources to help some of these troubled children,” Suffredin said.
However, Loyola University law professor Diane Geraghty said it is “absolutely true” that there aren’t sufficient alternatives to detention.
“There are not facilities that are willing to accept children this young, charged with the kinds of crimes that they are disproportionately charged with,” Geraghty said. “The real problem here is that the service community, both public and private, have not stepped forward and created a safe space for both these children, their families and the public.”
Still Geraghty said it is essential that the county find a way to keep “little children” from being locked up.
“Picture yourself as a 12-year-old or a 10-year-old in the Cook County Detention Center. Guards, guns, older kids, locked in your room, limited access to school,” Geraghty said. “It's not a place to help the child. And in the long run, it's not something that aids public safety.”
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.