(Editor Note: The Chicago Bureau, while run by Northwestern faculty and staffed chiefly by Medill journalism students, does not currently receive funding from the school)
After a day of some good and some rather sobering news on the juvenile justice front, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced a massive award to Northwestern University Law School’s Children and Family Justice Center. The center, headed by attorney Julie Biehl, includes a small staff who try push forward the debate over juvenile justice by engaging in the courtroom, drafting proposals to better a seemingly broken system and teaching a new crop of lawyers.
The center, it was revelead early this morning, will get $750,000 in funding as one of 13 honorees, all nonprofits, selected by Chicago-based MacArthur – which has made a wide push on the juvenile justice front over the years. All, which span the globe, received the Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
The grant to Northwestern was a one-time award given to prop up its programs and see them through lean times to keep their efforts alive.
Earlier, on Wednesday, the news wires and various publications were jammed with stories of lower incarceration rates for juveniles – something the NU clinic certainly supports and pushes – and a report from an Illinois state commission on juveniles that 17-year-olds charged with most felonies should face juvenile proceedings rather than be automatically transferred to adult court.
Again, that is an issue dear to the clinic, whose group of lawyers and staff pursue “exemplary advocacy for children caught up in the harsh realities of Illinois’ juvenile and criminal justice systems,” according to an NU release announcing the award.
That reality was all too clear this morning with reports pressing Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle about higher juvenile detention numbers. Her board controls the Cook County justice system including juvenile court and the storied but ultimately troubled Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center – a place ridiculed for overcrowding, providing slack services to needy children and financial woes.
For example, the Chicago Tribune reported late Wednesday that more children are being locked up in the facility despite efforts by Preckwinkle to eventually save $1.3 million by shutting the facility and opening differently conceived homes for suspected youth, and to lower incarceration rates (something seen throughout other parts of the state, according to reports out Wednesday).
In addition, the Tribune reported that, ”Earl Dunlap, the administrator [that] a judge brought in more than five years ago to try to right the ship at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center…warned that one area of the center shut last year at a savings of $2.6 million might need to be reopened if the numbers remain high.”
In an interview last year with The Chicago Bureau, Preckwinkle bemoaned the racial tilt a center that “should be blown up” because it is so skewed against blacks, and Hispanics, that she considers it a shame and near criminal to continue the operation as it is.
Exactly what has prompted the increase is unclear, though the Tribune did quote the board president saying Chicago’s high violence, documented throughout the world over the past year, was likely driving tougher, more aggressive police efforts to get troubled, suspected or potentially dangerous youth off the streets.
Preckwinkle has said the high rate of incarceration of minors should be wholly eliminated, that juvenile detention under her watch should be “blown up,” and, ultimately, that “we shouldn’t have a jail for kids. Period.”
The bureau reported in January that, according to the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, in 2009 alone, the number of youth detained in Cook County juvenile detention centers was 5,608 – and roughly 84 percent of that population was African American, 12 percent Hispanic and three percent white. Overall population statistics for Chicago, which is in Cook County, show a split of about one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white.
Not only is juvenile detention heavily skewed towards the black population today, but go back 10 years to a 2002 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, which showed that, very often, youth in solitary confinement do not receive any kind of educational training.
Without such training, black and other minority youth are, by definition, ill-equipped to make a decent living once released and actually contribute to society instead of dragging it down with the high medical costs associated with violence, the steep costs of incarceration and courts and the high number of police. Studies show that turning schools into a sort of “police state,” as some legislators at the local and national level have put it, actually retards progress by halting a minor’s potential before it has a chance to get realized.
For example, once a youth enters the juvenile system – especially through the justice side but also through agencies like the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services or the county’s Public Guardian’s office – and have their records marred with a felony, the chances of them earning a job quickly diminish. Additionally, without proper education, the window of opportunity gets smaller.
On Wednesday, The Tribune reported that, “the practical impact was laid out in a recent letter to county officials by Earl Dunlap, the administrator [that] a judge brought in more than five years ago to try to right the ship at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center…He wrote that Preckwinkle’s plan to save $1.3 million this year by shutting a section of the center in June likely would have to be put on hold because there are too many people housed in the lockup to reduce the staff or number of beds.”
In a Northwestern University release late Wednesday, Biehl was quoted as saying, “We know the children’s lives, their struggles, their stories, and we use that knowledge to educate judges, parole authorities, legislatures and other decision-makers about policies and institutions that far too often fail our children.
The release stressed the nearly 20-year-old center’s efforts to mentor “the next generation of lawyers and policy advocates.”
They cited the case of a 15-year-old girl who was “sentenced to life in prison without parole despite her young age and extenuating circumstances. Another client with a mental health condition who damaged a ceiling tile at his foster care facility was charged with a felony, and another, a young single mother, was arrested for violating her parole for taking her infant to daycare.”
Further, the release welcomed the news with this statement by Law School Dean Daniel Rodriguez: “Center faculty, through their tireless representation and advocacy, have changed juvenile justice in Illinois…We celebrate this award because it honors the Center’s many accomplishments and will allow it to expand its efforts in the community.”
The private MacArthur also awarded $750,000 to Chicago’s Southwest Organizing Project, a social justice and anti-violence effort. The independent foundation puts about $230 million every year into a wide range of efforts, including celebrated genius grants to MacArthur Fellows.
(Video from NU/MacArthur sites)