No Child Left Behind Bars

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]

Does the practice of putting young people behind bars make the city of Chicago safer? How does a kid who runs away from home end up in jail? Does the act of detaining youth build strong communities? Does a cage solve anything?

It is possible and imperative to use an abolitionist lens to imagine Chicago without youth locked behind bars. The term abolition became part of the public lexicon a century and a half ago in the battle to end slavery. In the current context, abolition is still connected to that struggle—it is the political vision that seeks to eliminate the need for prisons, policing, and surveillance by creating sustainable alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.

With rampant abuse, lack of meaningful resources or programs, poor health care and a general lack of dignity and respect, our country’s juvenile detention centers have essentially become cages for youth. And using a cage as a solution is never an appropriate response. Abolition is a necessary vision because putting youth behind bars does not make communities safer; it costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year and does not provide real, sustainable options for kids. Rather, providing basic necessities like food, shelter and freedom creates the conditions for more genuine forms of security.

Locally, the call for abolition is in response to the (mis)use of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (CCJTDC) and the devastating effects detainment has on youth, particularly youth of color. It is a call to break the cycle of attempts at reform and harsh criminalization of youth—a call to ultimately shut down the CCJTDC.

Imagining the closure of this center does not mean we assume that youth will never be violent or will not cross the boundaries set up by their communities. It means we must create alternatives for dealing with the injuries youth inflict upon each other, in ways that sustain communities and families. Closing the CCJTDC also means imagining a city where resources are redistributed and youth are given a valid voice, quality education, health care and employment opportunities. It means breaking down the systemic barriers that routinely prevent youth from having these needs met. Keeping communities whole is impossible by routinely removing people from it.

The abolition movement is especially relevant to Chicago since it was the first city in the country to open a juvenile court. In the late nineteenth century, Jane Addams, with the support of many citizen organizations, developed a separate system that sought to meet the needs of youth through treatment and rehabilitation. Within thirty years of the opening of the first juvenile court, every state in the nation had a juvenile system based on the same premise as Cook County’s—that young people needed to be treated as young people, not adults, and deserved a chance at rehabilitation. However, as policies across the nation took on a more punitive approach, conditions of the juvenile justice court in Chicago tragically began to parallel the conditions around the country.

In the 1990s, the nation witnessed a drastic rise in the already “tough-on-crime” attitude toward youth that changed the priorities of the juvenile justice system as a whole. School shootings, warnings of youth predators, and the media’s attention on juvenile crime stimulated political momentum to make the justice system “tougher” on youth.

By the end of this decade every state in the nation had changed their laws to make it easier to incarcerate youth in the adult system. This has become a widespread practice; youth are routinely tried as adults and directly enter the adult justice system. The courts also made more widespread use of temporary detention centers as state juvenile justice systems became more punitive.

The original purpose of detention centers was to temporarily house youth who pose a high risk of re-offending before their trial or who are deemed likely not to appear for their trial. According to a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute, however, some 70 percent of youth in jtdcs are there for non-violent crimes. The centers are now used mostly to detain youth charged with property offenses, public order offenses, technical probation violations, or status offenses (like running away or breaking curfew). It is also a place where youth who are awaiting transfer to group homes or alternative means of rehabilitation are sometimes held.

The report also argues that the act of detention can actually increase recidivism, pull youth deeper into the juvenile and criminal justice system, and harm the employment, health, and education of formerly detained youth. Nationwide, youth of color make up an alarmingly disproportionate share of the incarcerated youth population.

The JTDC in Cook County, informally referred to as the Audy Home, is no exception. At this time, there are approximately 400 youth, mostly youth of color, between the ages of 11 and 18 locked up in the CCJTDC. In the winter of 2005, an extensive review was conducted of the detention center to examine the health, safety and legal rights of youth in detention. The investigation found children being abused by staff, staff members setting up fights between kids, patronage-based hiring, and unacceptable health conditions.

The center is now the subject of a lengthy and expensive lawsuit brought on by the American Civil Liberties Union. In spite of a long list of recommended changes, sufficient improvements at the CCJTDC have not been made. In the fall of 2006, an organization working for corrections reform, John Howard Association of Illinois, released media reports highlighting the same disturbing health and safety conditions existing at the Center. Most of the youth in the center have experienced a great deal of violence in their lives and the condition they’re being held in is one more act of violence against them.

The injustice lies not only in the misuse of the detention center but also in the very use of it as a way to control youth. Various parties—from the government to human rights groups—agree that there are serious problems at the ccjtdc and that drastic changes are needed. However, the abolitionist perspective challenges not only the existence of these problems but the notion that it is ever okay to put youth in cages. The vision to dismantle the CCJTDC is a way to address the dire need to rebuild Chicago communities and to continue the work to provide viable options for youth.

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