Local Officials Divided on Approach to Juvenile Justice

Chicago, county and state officials are still split on whether a restorative or punitive approach to the juvenile justice system in the city is the most effective at curbing gun violence among Chicago youth – with Chicago’s police boss suggesting a greater crackdown is needed, the Cook County Board president quoted as saying she wanted to “explode” juvenile detention and the state still wrestling over juvenile life without parole sentences.

The overall picture of crime trends in Chicago shows that gun violence is waning – homicide rates have declined since the 1990s, with rates between 2004 and the present hovering about 14 per 100,000 people, according to a recent report on Chicago crime trends from the Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies. In 2013, the city recorded 1,863 shooting incidents, 24 percent less than it did in 2012.

Despite this inexplicable crime drop, gun violence among Chicago youth remains high by national standards. Eighty-two 10 to 20 year-olds in Chicago died from gunshots in 2013, according to a Chicago Bureau analysis of RedEye Homicide Tracker data. Now, a greater proportion of homicides in the city involve gang members.

According the same Yale University report, the percentage of inter-gang homicides declined to about 40 percent in 2004, while intra-gang homicides increased and has fluctuated between 25 and 40 percent of all gang homicides since 2004. And since 2010, about 900 Chicago minors have been arrested for gun possession, though fewer than 400 have faced charges. Approximately 80 percent of the 70 kids a year who are deemed delinquent by a juvenile court judge aren’t put in jail, according to a recent DNAinfo report.

The Juvenile Court Act of 1987 states that when delinquent minors are sentenced, they must either be assigned to community service, put on probation and monitored electronically, or sent to juvenile detention. But would more severe punishments for Chicago youth caught for possessing guns work better to decrease violence, or is restorative justice the way to go?

Chicago Justice Project Executive Director Tracy Siska said, “There is potential for outstanding benefits to Chicago throughout the criminal justice system and throughout society if we implemented restorative justice systems,” but was realistic about the likeliness of overhauling the entire juvenile justice system. “We’re going to have to get rid of the ‘old guard’ officials [in Chicago] before anything can really change,” he said. “I think it will happen sometime in the future, but because of how corrupt our officials are in Cook County and Chicago, it will take a long time.”

CPD Supt. Garry McCarthy
CPD Supt. Garry McCarthy

When it comes to CPD’s entanglement with minors in the streets of Chicago, Supt. Garry McCarthy  expressed some frustration with the law’s leniency toward kids caught with guns. He said in a published report that he didn’t have all the answers to reducing gun violence, but suggested that tougher consequences for gun offenses might be one approach.

“What we’re doing in the criminal justice system with juveniles is obviously not working,” McCarthy said in the  DNAinfo report. “Kids carrying guns are getting younger and younger. … They know anyone caught with a gun gets back on the street, and that’s definitely the case with juveniles. Something has to be done.”

John Hagedorn, a professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, scoffed at McCarthy’s statement. “Haven’t law enforcement and politicians been saying the same thing about violent kids getting younger for decades?” he said. “If they are getting younger, they are killing a lot less. Homicide rates are less than half of what they were in the early 1990s. And the gangs are radically different today, but let’s not let that get in the way of a good scapegoat. Maybe we should get rid of the juvenile justice system altogether and lock up those 11-year-old monsters before they do real damage.”

Rosalind Blasingame-Buford, Ph.D., director of local gang intervention organization Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development (BUILD), doesn’t think punitive justice solves the Chicago gang violence problem. She said kids can often get coerced into gun possession, and tougher sanctions for victims of gang influence won’t solve anything.

“I wouldn’t say that it wouldn’t have an impact, but I think that, in the end, it will hurt the young people in our communities even more,” Blasingame-Buford said. “I know several youth who have had guns in their possession, [and] not just because they want to. It’s a ‘kill or be killed’ mentality. When gang members tell these kids ‘Hold this gun,’ they’re not going to say no.”

BUILD’s gang intervention program, which enrolls 600 teens annually, aims to apply a restorative approach to juvenile justice by helping ex-offenders get jobs and housing. Instead of taking a tough on crime approach, authorities should take violence prevention methods a step further, Blasingame Buford said. “Studies show that when youth go to juvenile detention centers, they continue to offend,” Blasingame-Buford said. “We need to invest in resources that will prevent kids from getting into gangs in the first place. Especially when kids are arrested for unlawful gun possession, they can’t get a job; they can’t get into college.”

Elena Quintana, Ph.D., director of the Adler Institute on Public Safety & Social Justice, said that McCarthy’s comments and the rationale behind them go against “every shred of scientific evidence.”

“Unfortunately, McCarthy’s statement supports child exploitation on the grandest scale imaginable,” Quintana said. “The U.S. already arrests and incarcerates more children than any other country on earth, and with spectacularly dismal results.”

“We spend all of our ‘public safety’ dollars passing devastating mandatory minimum laws that only invest in the criminal justice machine that chews kids up developmentally, and produces a negative return on our public dollar ‘investment,’” Quintana continued. “If we want kids that are most likely to commit crimes to pose less of a public threat, then we desperately need to stop doing the exact opposite of what will help them. After all, don’t we want to increase their functionality to a level where they can one day be successful tax payers rather than crippling them so that they will very likely be tax-dependent inmates for much of their life course?”

Dan Cooper, Ph.D., also from the Adler Institute on Public Safety & Social Justice, agreed with Quintana. He expressed concern that stricter gun possession laws would disproportionately affect youth of color. “Youth violence is not a problem we can arrest our way out of, and this continued myopic approach ignores the larger structural determinants, such as economic and education inequality,” Cooper said. “We should be promoting solutions that work to keep youth in school and strengthen communities rather than criminalizing our youth.”

In comparison to Illinois, the Massachusetts Supreme Court recently ruled that juvenile court judges can throw out criminal charges against teenagers before their sentence hearings, ensuring that the alleged crimes are never entered on their records.

In 1995, Ohio implemented the RECLAIM program statewide, which enabled counties to develop substance abuse treatment, monitoring, restitution and community service, educational, and family preservation programs for at-risk youth who commit crimes, which led to a 14 percent decline in the number of confined youth in the state from 1991 to 1999.

In 2007, judges in Connecticut were prohibited from ordering youth to confinement if there were less restrictive alternatives appropriate to the child’s and community’s needs. The state budget also required the state to provide Family Support Centers for high-risk youth who commit status offenses and their families, with the purpose of keeping youth out of the juvenile justice system.

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