Cook County poised to end illegal treatment of minors upon arrest

Cook County court officials are poised to shift policy and conduct hearings 365 days a year for youth following their arrest, just days after a federal lawsuit contended that hundreds of juveniles each year are illegally held too long awaiting a hearing.

The change would give juveniles the same right as adults to a prompt judicial assessment of the charges against them.

Under pressure from a federal judge who described it as “mind-boggling” that Cook County limits juvenile detention hearings to business days, Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans has drafted an administrative order requiring hearings for youth seven days a week. The order may not become effective for at least a week as authorities assess the logistics of the change.

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The proposed order was presented Tuesday to U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin. His pointed critique last week prompted the quick response by Evans, who as top judge was among the defendants in the suit.

“This order certainly seems to satisfy the constitutional requirements of a swift hearing before a neutral magistrate on the issue of detention,” Durkin said at a hearing Tuesday, commending both Evans and the presiding judge of juvenile court for their prompt response.

Adele Nicholas, an attorney for the families of youth who brought the suit, said she was pleased by the response.  “Judge Evans has taken this very seriously, and I really applaud that – that they’ve looked at this issue, they’ve sat down and had a meeting, and they’ve thought about how to fix the problem,” Nicholas said.

The federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of four unidentified minors by their parents, challenged a Cook County policy that left juveniles to linger in custody far beyond the 48-hour limit set by the U.S. Supreme Court, a result of the failure to have initial hearings for youth on weekends and holidays. Nicholas said one of her clients had sat in custody on a holiday weekend for 88 hours before a judge held a hearing. One of the juveniles in the lawsuit was released after 55 hours without ever being formally charged with the crime for which he was arrested.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 said that defendants are entitled upon arrest to a hearing within 48 hours, and the U.S. Justice Department clarified in 2012 that the right applied to juveniles as well as adults.

The newly-drafted Cook County order will require the county to conduct hearings for minors “every day of the year, including weekends and holidays.” At those sessions, the judge will decide if there is sufficient probable cause to allow the criminal charges to be approved.

While it may take a few weeks “to get this up and running,” an attorney for Evans said, the order would bring sweeping changes to Cook County’s Juvenile Justice Division. “I think it might take a little bit of time to implement … but they’re prepared to go pretty quickly to try and get this going,” Attorney General Thomas Ioppolo said.

Durkin granted the defense one week to tell him either that the policy has been implemented immediately or if it will be started at some later specified date.

Presiding Judge Michael P. Toomin of the Juvenile Justice Division will be in charge of scheduling and assigning judges to the daily hearings under the proposed order.

Officials have not said what the added costs might be for the system.

The lawsuit was filed by parents, Demont Goudy, Tabitha Smith, Mireya Rivera and Jennifer Johnson, on behalf of their minor children on Sept. 6. Nicholas also sought to have the lawsuit approved as a class action.

Evans’ office did not respond to requests for comment. Dixon’s office declined to comment.

Illinois law has never been amended to conform to the federal requirement of speedy hearings for youth; an effort by legislators last spring to change the law died in the Senate.

Nicholas said that failure made the lawsuit necessary.  “This is sometimes what role the courts have to play,” she said. “Legislators want to seem like they’re being tough on crime, that they are more focused on community safety and things of that nature, or they are also wary of imposing additional costs on the court. So there’s not the political will to take the action that’s required.”

She added, “And that’s why sometimes it has to be brought to the federal court to put that check in place that says: ‘Okay, even if it’s not a popular or desired move, you have to take action.’ And hopefully that’s what this case is going to do.”