The police station at the corner of Pershing and California on Chicago’s Southwest Side looks like any other station.
It’s brick and stone, with an arched window over a wide door. But this police station is supposed to be different. It only processes juveniles and its goal is to divert kids from the criminal justice system and provide them with services.
The more than 10-year-old program will cost the city about $5 million this year, according to budget documents, but evidence of the program’s effectiveness is sparse. WBEZ requests under the Freedom of Information Act turned up spotty data, and the city department that coordinates the services refused repeated interview requests as did a private non-profit that contracts with the department.
Juvenile justice advocates say they’ve been seeking information for years without success and that has them wondering if there isn’t a better way for the city to spend its limited dollars to help kids and keep the city safe.
A Mix Of Hope and Skepticism
Paula Wolff, director of the Illinois Justice Project, said when the Juvenile Intervention and Support Center (JISC), was first proposed, the city gathered together experts on juvenile justice.
“The idea behind it was that many youth end up in the justice system because there are needs in their families,” she said. “Individual needs for the youth, but also family needs, and the reason that they get involved with the law is because they have either a substance abuse problem or poverty and they need to figure out how to keep their families alive.”
Some advocates in those early days, like Wolff, said they had reservations but were hopeful. Others said they were skeptical. Would this new police station actually live up to its promise of giving kids service? Or would the JISC just become another way for kids to end up in contact with the criminal justice system?
“Getting a record makes your life harder,” said Julie Biehl, a Northwestern law professor and director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Children and Family Justice Center. “It makes it harder to go to school. It makes it harder to get a job. It makes it harder to have housing. It makes it harder to just do the things that we want young people to do.”
Most young people who come through the JISC get a criminal record even if they are sent home with parents or referred to services. In the first nine months of 2018, only four kids were released without charges, less than 1% of the kids who came to the JISC, according to data obtained by WBEZ.
Garien Gatewood, a program director at the Illinois Justice Project, said it’s not necessary to give kids that kind of record. He pointed to a Miami-Dade County program, which instead uses civil citations to get many kids out of the system as quickly as possible. He said that model is in “stark contrast” to what Chicago does.
While most kids coming through the JISC are charged, the JISC does not send all of them to juvenile court. Data obtained by WBEZ shows that in the first nine months of 2018, about 60% of kids who came to the JISC were sent to court, while another 40% were diverted. That’s higher than the city-wide rate of court diversion for kids and is one area where the program is reaching goals.
Still, advocates like Biehl wonder if the number of kids diverted from court should be even higher, especially when considering the types of crimes kids are accused of when they come to the JISC.
According to a police directive, kids and teenagers who are accused of sex crimes or crimes that caused great bodily harm or involved gun possesion cannot be processed at the JISC. And according to data obtained by WBEZ, many of the kids who come to the JISC are accused of things like trespassing, theft, possession of a controlled substance and battery, which could be as simple as a fist fight with a classmate.
Biehl said these are the kinds of crimes that are perfect for diversion and that when white suburban teenagers commit these kinds of crimes, they are often dealt with outside the criminal justice system.
Chicago Police Deputy Chief Thomas Lemmer defended the numbers showing that only 40% of the kids processed at the JISC are diverted away from court. He said many of the kids are accused of serious crimes or have been repeatedly arrested and are in need of a more serious intervention. However, the police department did not provide data to illustrate that point.
When asked what it would take to be able to divert more kids from court, Lemmer said there needed to be a better “accountability” system. For example, he said there isn’t currently a reliable way to force a kid to show up for therapy or punish them if they don’t. Once diverted from court, the system has a carrot, but not much of a stick. Lemmer said because of this, police are hesitant to divert young people with serious issues from the court system.
“The more deeply impacted by risk factors a young person is, the [least] likely they are to seek help on their own, because of the situation that they’re in. So we want to make sure that we’re building a system that does not forget about them,” said Lemmer.
THE PROMISE OF SERVICES
The part of the JISC that was supposed to make it unique from other police stations is its ambition to provide kids with access to social services.
That piece of the JISC, according to police officials, falls under the purview of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services, which has contracted with the non-profit SGA Youth & Family Services to provide case management. About 15% of the kids who came to the JISC in the first nine months of 2018 were put into case management, but it’s unclear exactly what services they ended up getting.
According to emails from DFSS, case management involves evaluating kids, offering support and referring them to services outside the JISC. Those outside organizations, however, receive no funding from the JISC, and neither SGA nor the JISC would provide a complete list of where youth were being sent, or how many kids received what kinds of services.
Youth advocates say that makes it impossible to effectively evaluate the program.
“You have to look at the quality of services provided, you have to look at the outcomes,” said Gatewood. “We can’t subscribe and co-sign to a system if we don’t know if the outcomes are positive or not.”
Biehl said she has been perplexed and continues to be perplexed, “And the thing that I think is important, is that myself and many other people have been asking for transparency for the last 12 or 15 years and it’s like no one wants to tell us, which makes me suspicious.”
Biehl said that transparency around outcomes is essential before the city continues funding the JISC “so that we know what we are doing is cost effective, consistent with best practices, advances the mission of diversion and providing services to youth and protects public safety.”
Correction: This story has been updated to give the accurate spelling of the last name of Paula Wolff.
Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter at WBEZ, follow her at @shannon_h