Cook County Board bars detention of youth under 13 years old

The Cook County board on Wednesday became the first county in Illinois to prohibit the detention of children under the age of 13, as the board unanimously adopted an ordinance to bar the practice.

Though the ordinance mostly states existing practices, last year Cook County detained nine children aged between 11 and 13, said Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin.

“We create a traumatic experience for these children when they are detained,” Suffredin said. “This kind of reform is very significant, because a child put into this situation is going to be damaged for a very long time, and society may pay the price for the mistake we made earlier in that child’s life.”

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The ordinance follows a May report of the Juvenile Justice Initiative that noted detention of juveniles appears tied to decreased graduation rates and repeat offenses. The American Pediatric Association has reported the detention of children can lead to multiple long- and short-term medical and psychological health problems, including behavioral issues.

The Juvenile Justice Initiative report said that state funding has provided an incentive to detaining Illinois youth. Reform programs such as Redeploy Illinois, which aim to reduce juvenile incarceration, provide alternatives at sentencing, but not when juveniles are first arrested and placed in juvenile detention centers, the initiative report said.

“Our next steps are to work alongside the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and other stakeholders to put a plan in place with service providers like Youth Outreach Services to provide alternatives [to detention] for these kids,” said Garien Gatewood, director of policy advocacy at the initiative. Gatewood said many children have already used these kinds of alternatives, and now there will be more.

Cook County has taken past steps to address issues of juvenile detention, serving as one of the first sites for the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in the 1990s. According to the initiative report, detention alternatives were developed then that reduced the county’s detention population from 800 to the current level under 250.

“Hats off to the County Commissioners for saying they will lead the charge in Illinois to eliminate detention centers,” Gatewood said.