Effort Designed to Keep Teens Out of Jail Badly Broken, Officials Tell Aldermen

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

An effort designed to keep teens who commit minor crimes out of jail is so broken that the city’s social service agency will no longer work with the Chicago Police Department to administer the program, officials told aldermen Tuesday.

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The city’s Department of Family and Support Services will stop funding the Juvenile Intervention and Support Center at the end of the year, Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler announced Tuesday during a joint session of the City Council’s Ethics and Government Oversight Committee and the Budget and Government Operations Committee.

Teens who are arrested on misdemeanor charges in several West and South side neighborhoods are sent to the Juvenile Intervention and Support Center in Brighton Park to be fingerprinted, booked and referred to a social service agency for an evaluation. If the teens complete the recommended therapy, counseling or substance abuse treatment, they can avoid punishment.

Several aldermen said they were shocked by Morrison Butler’s announcement that instead the city plans to select outside social service agencies to focus on juvenile diversion as part of a $4.7 million contract that would start on Jan. 1, 2021. 

DFSS will no longer contribute $500,000 annually to the center, Morrison Butler said. The center has a $5 million annual budget.

Morrison Butler said the city’s Family and Support Services staff brought concerns to her about the center beginning in 2016. Those issues, which included disagreements over whether teens who fail to participate in social services should face legal penalties, proved insurmountable, officials said.

“Tinkering around the edges will no longer serve Chicago’s needs,” Morrison Butler said.

The Chicago Police Department remains committed to operating the center and working to keep teens out of the criminal justice system, Deputy Chief Migdalia Bulnes said. The center was founded in March 2006 with a federal grant.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward), the chair of the Public Safety Committee, said he was saddened to hear that city officials had decided after 14 years “of somewhat of a failure” to start from scratch.

“What I’m hearing is that you are abandoning the ship and building a new boat,” Taliaferro said. “That’s not the way to go.”

Taliaferro said the decision would lead to more violence and more “anguish” as city officials struggle to tamp down a surge in violence on Father’s Day weekend that ended with 104 people shot and 14 people dead, including a 3-year-old boy.

“I don’t see a bright future,” Taliaferro said. “If we can’t get it right, how can we expect our youth to get it right?”

The hearing on Tuesday was prompted by a February audit by Inspector General Joseph Ferguson that found there was no way to determine whether the program helps the 3,000 teens who are arrested and sent there every year.

The audit found that the agency that managed the center did not keep proper records, while Chicago police destroyed youth screening records in violation of state law.

In addition, sending teens to the center after they are arrested “may actually retraumatize” them or increase the likelihood that they commit another crime, according to the audit.

The audit found that the center at 3900 S. California Ave. operated much like a traditional police station. Teens were handcuffed to walls and forced to sit on plastic benches for as long as 40 minutes while their cases were processed.

The officers assigned to work there were chosen based on seniority, and got no specialized training, according to the audit.

In addition, the audit found that in approximately 35% of cases, teens were referred to services they did not need, which “may do more harm than good and could ultimately increase the chance of recidivism.”

Bulnes said the center had been repainted with murals and new furniture had been purchased to make it seem less forbidding to teens brought to the former

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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