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Preckwinkle dealt setback in effort to shrink juvenile detention center

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle is temporarily reversing her signature initiative to shrink the Juvenile Detention Center because a federally-appointed administrator says there are too many kids being detained there to safely reduce its size.

In a statement Wednesday, Preckwinkle acknowledged “the temporary need to open a center” after the facility’s administrator said it was getting dangerously crowded.

Earl Dunlap, who was brought in five years ago by a judge to oversee the troubled juvenile center, sent a letter this week to Preckwinkle, county commissioners and other officials saying there are too many detainees there to cut its size and the number of security staff.

Preckwinkle had hoped to close part of the near West Side facility in June, saving $1.2 million and redirecting some of that money to alternatives like smaller group homes.

But Dunlap said in order to cope with the number of youths being sent there, he instead will begin taking steps to re-open part of the center that was shut down last year at a savings to the county of $2.6 million. Dunlap said there’s “no way” the county can proceed with an additional closure now. The county budget includes the money to continue with the current number of beds and staffing, he said.

It will be trickier financially to reopen the part of the juvenile center that was shuttered last year. Dunlap said he’s preparing to operate it using overtime and private contractors, which he said he could do “for a couple months” without additional money from the County Board.

In the meantime, Dunlap said he will prepare to hire additional staff to permanently work at the re-opened section, which he said could house about 42 juvenile detainees once it was operational. Preckwinkle did not say how she plans to cover the cost of temporarily opening part of the center, or how long she expects it to be open. Her statement said county officials “will continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Dunlap has set the ceiling for the number of youths who can now be detained at the juvenile center at 280. The average number of people held overnight in April was 266, and the daytime average was 279, according to juvenile center records. But Dunlap pointed out that for the first 12 days of May, the daytime average increased to 298 and the number staying overnight to 284.

“You have to look at the trend,” said Dunlap, who noted that the population of the juvenile center typically goes up in the summer months as more young people are arrested.

Dunlap sounded similar concerns in February, warning county officials after a population spike in January. At the time, Preckwinkle suggested that the higher number was due to “increased police response” because of a particularly violent January in Chicago. That gets at part of Preckwinkle’s difficulty — she has little control over how many young people police arrest, or whether judges order them held in detention.

On Wednesday, Preckwinkle said the focus should be on doing a better job of determining who should be kept there. “We are looking at data to determine which youth should be detained and which would be better served through alternative practices or programs,” she said in a statement. “We are examining how we identify youth for detention and considering changes to the risk assessment so only those who pose a risk to public safety are detained.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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