Chicago's alternative to locking up youth

D. is a high school freshman who admits he helped steal two cars.

Instead of being locked up in a juvenile detention facility, however, the teenager is spending the evening at a youth-services center, engaged in a spirited discussion on the recent US Supreme Court decision on police searches.

This is Chicago's approach to juvenile delinquency: an experiment that emphasizes alternatives to detention for pretrial youths not considered dangerous. Some juvenile-justice advocates cite it as the premier example of a major city bucking the trend of locking kids up.

For D. and other teens here tonight, it's a welcome alternative to the county's detention center, where 10 years earlier they probably would have ended up. Instead, they spend five hours each evening at Youth Outreach Services, one of seven evening reporting centers in Chicago.

D. says the program has served as somewhat of a wake-up call. "Someone came in from the Cook County Jail, and it made me think," he says. "I know I ain't want to go to jail."

D. (the center prohibits using the boys' first or last names) says he no longer talks to his old friends and hopes that when he's done with his time in the reporting center, getting a job, maybe at a White Castle, will keep him off the streets.

Juvenile detention - a pretrial lockup - has often been used to ensure that kids make it to their court dates and don't commit other crimes in the meantime.

But some feel the practice is too widespread. According to a report released this month by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), the number of juveniles held in secure detention centers increased 72 percent nationwide from 1994 to 2000 - despite the fact that the juvenile crime rate has reached its lowest level in 20 years. The majority are 15 or younger and haven't been charged with violent crimes.

It's an issue that's far less prominent than, say, whether to give juveniles the death penalty, or try them as adults. But critics say the trend has serious ramifications - that detention can turn small-time offenders into worse criminals, or aggravate mental illness or substance abuse. They'd like to see more cities follow Cook County, which has cut its population in detention nearly in half since 1994, and gets 90 percent of its juveniles to court on time, crime-free.

"In places like Cook, you can see that when young people are not locked up there are so many more positive outcomes," says Nancy Gannon, director of the CJJ. "They're with a positive peer group, they don't feel stigmatized, they're at home, and at school, and with role models."

IT WASN'T always like this in Cook County. Ten years ago, its 498-bed detention center was "bursting at the seams," says Renate Reichs, chief of the juvenile court's detention alternatives division. At one point, it housed 848 kids. "We realized we'd either have to build more, or do something different." They worried that building another detention center would be like adding lanes to a highway: More kids would come to fill the beds.

Instead, Cook County accepted a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to create alternatives. It developed a complex screening process, which looks at factors like the violence of the crime committed and prior arrests to determine if a kid really needs to be locked up. Many kids in detention were there simply because they'd missed their court dates, so the court started sending reminders - which improved court attendance by 50 percent.

And the county developed a range of alternatives to detention, including home-confinement, in which a child is allowed to leave home only for school; a monitoring system by electronic bracelet; and the reporting-center program.

"This was about taking the kids off the street during the high-crime time [of 4 to 9 p.m.] and actually giving them something," says Ms. Reichs. The centers, run by community agencies under contract with the court system, provide transportation, a meal, and programming - from current-events discussions and bowling to pet therapy and victim-impact panels.

Not everyone, of course, sees such alternatives as a good thing. In an age when the prevailing mood seems to be toward zero tolerance, alternatives to detention strike some as a softball experiment that doesn't teach young offenders a sufficient lesson. Worse, they worry it puts the community at risk by allowing criminals to remain on the street until their trial.

"The devil is in the details," says Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a victims' advocacy association in Houston. "Public safety is No. 1 for all decisionmaking in criminal justice. If there's the slightest inclination by the prosecutor or judge that the youth is a risk to public safety, they must go in a detention center."

Those communities emphasizing alternatives over lockup - in addition to Chicago, Ms. Gannon cites Portland, Ore., Santa Cruz, Calif., and areas in North Dakota, Idaho, and New Mexico - say they take precautions to make sure any kid who poses a real threat is still locked up.

And they point to the results. Community safety was a prime worry for many of the reform detractors in Cook County, says Reichs, but even though the detention center now averages just above 400 kids, crime hasn't gone up, and arrests for violent crimes dropped 54 percent from 1993 to 1999.

The long-term impact of the center on boys like D. (the county runs one reporting center for girls) remains a question mark. No one in Cook County has yet studied what becomes of them down the road, or even how their repeat arrest rate later compares with those offenders who were locked up. And 21 days - the length of time most teens spend at such centers - seems a short span to make any real changes.

But the reforms have succeeded in making juvenile advocates and those in the court system feel they're working with each other, not against each other. "It used to be adversarial to be in treatment and working with probation," says Margo Bristow, the program manger at Youth Outreach Services. "But now, they're looking at - let's help these kids grow, and be what they can be. That's the biggest change I've seen with juvenile justice in this state."

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