By Mary L. Datcher
Defender Senior Staff Writer
Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) is home to about 230 youth inmates.
The facility was designed to house 500 young detainees while awaiting court to determine their fate. At one point, the county facility held close to 800, but over the last five years, it has gradually decreased.
Chief Judge Tim Evans of the Circuit Court of Cook County and JTDC Superintendent Leonard Dixon recently hosted a special summit, Change Strategies: Decreasing Violence in the Chicagoland Area, inviting various law enforcement agency managers, community and faith leaders to participate in several panel discussions.
Evans established the Circuit Court of Cook County Committee on the Transition of the JTDC in September 2014. Since then, the committee has made some leadership changes, including hiring Dixon.
“The headlines all over the world have dealt with violence in Chicago, particularly in 2016. We have seen the violence permeate throughout our areas. The averages show about 12 violent acts taking place every day of the year in 2016. Shooting about every two hours — if you can imagine that,” Evans said.
Evans says when young adults arrive at JTDC, they come to get the medical attention that they didn’t get elsewhere. In addition to mental health care access and drug treatment, inmates learn to cope. He said “anger management, conflict resolution, empathy development, impulse control and problem solving” are essential to growth.
“We know that with respect to the young people, they are sensation-seeking. They are impulse-driven, often without the ability to anticipate the consequences that flow from their actions.”
Ngozi Ezike, medical director for Cook County Health and Hospital Systems, agrees with Evans’ assessment on the ill-fated choices young people make, landing them in trouble.
She feels it’s essential to remember youth detainees as not just juveniles, but they are also children. “It’s import to be able to put that human connection with dealing with kids. Remembering the brain — what age are we allowed to drive? At what age are we allowed to vote? At what age are we allowed to drink alcohol? What age are we allowed to rent a car?”
Ezike says the car-rental companies have it right with the requirement age of 25 allowed to rent a vehicle.
“The car-rental companies got it right. They are trying to think about their bottom line. The prefrontal cortex, which controls impulse control, is developing until age 25. It starts at puberty, so when you think about things that people do at their youth, their brain is still developing,” she said.
Leading the youth discussion, ABC-7 anchorman, Terrell Brown asked what will help reduce the violence in Chicago?
‘Stop Profiling Us’
Leonard, a Level 4 inmate, said, “Stop profiling us — period — by the color of our skin or hair. To label us as ‘menaces of society’ because we did one thing and messed up in life. It’s not over for us. So, you give up on us because we did one thing instead of helping us maintain to move forward.” He said learning a trade or skills could help them go forward for their future, because college may not be for everyone.
Santino, 17, feels acquiring a solid trade would hopefully steer them on the best track.
“Job trades to help us with future employment. Summer jobs to allow teens to have their own money and keep them busy. After-school programs to assist us with homework and give us a place to hang out after school. Mentoring — adult males to show teens how to be productive citizens.”
As the only female panelist, Katrina, 17, added gangs are a major issue to reducing violence. “One thing I think we should do to reduce violence is to help those to get out of gangs. Help those that made people do things to other people. To get them into things to stay focused instead of focusing on hurting someone or get revenge. To not think about violence — to move away and move forward.”
Most of the young people who spoke on the special panel were Level 4 leaders, the highest level, which represent growth and responsibility for helping other youth inmates readjust their stay in a positive way.
Journalist and former anchorwoman Robin Robinson was one of the moderators for the summit. She is a consultant for the Chicago Police Department and works closely with Superintendent Eddie Johnson on community relations and outreach.
She led the Law Enforcement/Juvenile Justice and Community Organizations panel discussions.
In addressing the ongoing cycle of both African-American and Latino youth being the highest groups of JTDC detainees, she believes it starts with the home.
“I would argue some of the young people who were here (JTDC) 20 years ago are the parents of the young people that we are seeing wilding out,” said Robinson.
Growing up in Brighton Park, Santino was part of the second-generation cycle of being in the system.
“My dad wasn’t around — he was locked up. I ended up meeting my dad when I was 9. He took me around and stuff and he eventually got back in my life, but he passed away when I was 13.” Although his mother raised him, she had to focus on his siblings. “She just couldn’t just fully focus on me so I went to the streets.” he said, “I felt like that’s where the love was. Out there doing what I had to do to survive.”
More than anything, as the young adults addressed the room filled with community and legislative leaders, along with law enforcement agencies and media, attendees felt the impact of their words. The outlining truth of one-parent households and need for presence of one other parent was evident as each person described their home life.
Nigel, 17, explains, “I’ve always had my mother and father in my life, but I’ve been with mother more than my father. Growing up, my mother was like both parents. She taught me right from wrong and my life lessons, but it was up to me to follow those lessons. Any choice I made, I made it on my own. She can teach me, but it was up to me to follow it.”
As they opened up about their background, JTDC administrators were protective of their situations and made sure not too much personal information would be shared, with most having pending cases that could jeopardize their outcome.
Leonard, 17 and a young father, still feels the absence of his dad. “I was a 6-year-old when my father left because he wanted to run the streets. He didn’t want to choose his family over the streets. All I had was my mother, who was going through college with me and my grandmother.” Eventually, his mother became a medical specialist, trying hard to keep him off the streets, but it wasn’t enough. “She tried so much to keep me off the streets, but I had older brothers who wanted to run the streets and I wanted to be like them. Imagine having a mother who had animosity against the father because he left.”
With a full high school on its premises, the Nancy Jefferson High School, each detainee can earn their school credits and diploma while awaiting court or release.
Pastor John Hannah attended the JTDC Summit as one of the keynote speakers, and former employee at the detention center. He worked there for eight years prior to overseeing his church full-time.
Hannah believes it is the responsibility of the community to be there for each other — especially the youth.
“You can put a demand on your community. You need a village for every probation officer, every police officer, every schoolteacher. You cannot do this alone. When you find the right partners, you can make it happen. When you find deadbeats in your community, shut it down. There’s power in numbers,” he said.
Growing up in Archer Heights, Arturo says his refuge was summer programs at the neighborhood YMCA. “It’s important when we start programs to keep them funded. Once they get started, they want to cut the programs. I just wish they would keep them funded. It does help a lot of us,” he said.
Funding that went toward one summer of activities was one of the safest times for him. “I didn’t get into any trouble. I wasn’t arrested, I didn’t do anything — it was a good summer. It helped me move on. The next summer, they cut the program. I didn’t have anything to do but hang out with my friends. As kids, we make stupid choices because we want to have something to do.”
Brady Brixy is the chief of the Juvenile Justice Division of the Law Office of Cook County Public Defender. She says that her staff do all they can to keep the kids out of the Department of Juvenile Justice system.
“It’s child prison. Some of them are headed there and when they come out, they do not come out better. They come out more violent and they come out more desperate. Everyone works hard to keep them out of there,” she explains. “It’s this idea about juvenile justice that we’re all here to help the kids with the best interest in mind, but these are kids facing real criminal cases with real criminal consequences that follow them for the rest of their lives.”
Now a Level 4 leader, Katrina has a new look on life. “We need more counseling for people that need more help. More sports programs for people who love basketball and football. Sometimes, sports are the way people get out of trouble. That helps keep them from violence and getting hurt.”
As the JTDC residents chime in on their solutions to reducing the violence, one recommended a gang rehabilitation center to help those adjust without the barriers that many face trying to go legit.
Leonard added, “We need more mentors that can just call sometimes and ask ‘how are you doing, how’s your day going?’ Get more mentors who’s actually been through this phase. Why they had to do this? You wouldn’t want someone telling you something that they’ve never gone through. Let the youth talk to them sometimes, not always the adults but the youth. ‘I’ve been through this too.’ ”
Knowing the task ahead is a tough one, Chief Judge Evans and the leadership of JTDC Superintendent. Dixon sees the changes inside but understands the real challenge is outside.
“We believe, that, yes, we have to help some of the children here. But the answers are in the community — beyond these walls.”