By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The room grew silent when nine teenagers entered. Eight were boys, one was a girl. Their ages ranged from 15-17; they looked like ordinary kids from good backgrounds. They were smart and articulate. Somehow, they had gotten into trouble and strayed from a script that most parents have for their children. Under the layers of scars they bore, were the souls of youth who had not given up dreaming of a better life.
After an hour of networking, speeches and more speeches, the time came for a room packed full of pastors, community leaders, and residents to hear about the lives of teenagers who had spent time at the Juvenile Detention Center after getting into trouble.
They were the youngest speakers at a juvenile summit held at the Cook County Temporary Detention Center on January 19, on the Near West Side.
Called Change Strategies: Decreasing Violence in The Chicagoland Area, the summit was organized by Circuit Court of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans. The three-hour conference included speeches from pastors, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers who gave insight on Chicago’s nationally reported crime problem.
“I believe that one way to prevent violence is to improve the family structure,” said John Hannah, pastor of New Life Covenant Church and one the summit’s keynote speakers. “Many of these youth grow up with no strong male figure.”
But it was the testimonies of kids who weren’t yet old enough to drive that riveted everyone in the room. With the exception of one, most of them had earned their way to Level Four as detainees: they had become leaders and role models whose behavior was a model for others to follow.
With the dozens of cell phones and television cameras turned off to protect their identities, the teenagers opened up to ABC 7 WLS Reporter Terrell Brown. He moderated a conversation that sometimes pushed the legal limits of an interview with a juvenile.
Nigel was perhaps the most outspoken teen in the group. “Their first impression is when they stop and see us, they instigate the talking trash to us,” Nigel said. “And I’m like, ‘Why is that your first instinct when you all see us? Why don’t you all say ‘Hello. How you all doing? Is (sic) you all safe out here?’ They don’t ask those questions. They just look at us like thugs.”
The teenagers were asked how the available juvenile programs can keep young men and women out of trouble.
The only girl in the group, Katrina, suggested more access to sports programs. “Sometimes sports is a way people get out of trouble and it helps them get away from problems and violence and being hurt. I think we need that,” she said.
Another teen, Santino, suggested that more mentoring programs would be of value. “A lot of us in here have a common theme: our fathers weren’t around, so we need a male figure (sic) in our lives to teach us right from wrong.”
Chief Judge Evans called for reforms in the juvenile justice system.
“We cannot arrest our way out of these problems,” he said. “We cannot prosecute our way out of these problems. We cannot imprison our way out of these problems. We have to work together.”
“What we’re trying to do is put a face on this issue of violence so the public can see that these young people are not people simply to be thrown away. They’re our kids,” Evans said.
According to a recent study by Northwestern University, young Black men who enter juvenile detention often lead unsuccessful adult lives plagued by incarceration, unemployment and other woes. Researchers say Black men provide the most drastic statistics among ethnic groups.
The study, called the Northwestern Juvenile Project, conducted research at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, where Black youth often struggle more than their white and Hispanic counterparts.
The Juvenile Temporary Detention Center provides temporary secure housing for youth ages 10 through 16 years who are waiting for their cases to be decided by the Juvenile Division of the Cook County Courts. The Center also provides care for youth who have been transferred from Juvenile Court jurisdiction to Criminal Court. These youths would otherwise be incarcerated with adults in the County jail.
The project for years followed some 1,800 people who entered the Detention Center in the late 1990s. As part of the study, researchers interviewed juveniles face to face periodically. Researchers examined their employment history, educational achievement, family life, housing, substance use, and any further arrests, among other topics.
According to the study, after 12 years only 1 in 5 males and 1 in 2 females had attained “positive outcomes” in more than half of the areas of their lives that researchers studied. And only half of the participants obtained a high school diploma or its equivalent, a rate significantly lower than that of the general population. One out of five males was working full time or in school.
Black men lagged behind other study participants in numerous categories. For example, white male participants had more than five times better odds of being in school or employed full time, than Black males, after 12 years.
As of May 2015, Evans’ department began supervising the operations of the JTDC, located at 1100 S. Hamilton Ave. Evans said the JTDC once had as many as 800 youth in the facility, but the number is down to 230.
Evans called for “restorative justice,” a process whereby juvenile offenders who complete work assigned by a judge can have their records expunged.
“We believe restorative justice is a way to solve these problems, Evans said.
“As they come back to the community, they come back as accomplished citizens,” Evans said. “Not as a terrorist or somebody you need to be afraid of.”