1st U.S. juvenile court rediscovers its mission Justice: A reformation has swept through the Juvenile Court in Chicago, once a hopelessly clogged institution that served as a dumping ground for judges.

Sun Journal

May 06, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- The juvenile court began here. And four years ago, it looked like the Windy City's court might be the first to collapse under pressures that have afflicted the institution in cities around the country.

The Cook County Juvenile Court was serving fewer than half its warrants. Corrections officials had illegally overcrowded the juvenile detention center. The heaviest caseloads in the nation choked the system's child-protection courtrooms.

"And this was a dumping ground," says Patrick Murphy, the county's public guardian, "for lazy, alcoholic judges."

As the centennial of its 1899 founding approaches, America's largest juvenile court shows signs of an unexpected turnaround.

Two new presiding judges in Cook County have reduced caseloads, created alternatives to jail to keep youths out of the detention center, and brought in younger, more ambitious judges. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has named Cook County a model juvenile court.

The Cook County Juvenile Court was long considered too big to control. Each year about 40,000 children -- 10 percent of the youngsters who interact with all U.S. juvenile courts -- walk through the doors of the massive courthouse on Chicago's West Side. Some are delinquents facing justice; others, neglected and abused children needing protection.

Donald O'Connell, the new chief judge of the entire Cook County Circuit Court, adheres to time-tested management techniques, campaign-style appeals for community support, and an old-fashioned conception of the court as a service agency, rather than a correctional institution.

Judges and Chicago charities have been raising private money for juvenile programs. Next year, they hope to launch a foundation that will pay for counseling for abuse victims, a vocational referral center and a discretionary fund that would allow judges to buy bicycles, musical instruments and other gifts for troubled youngsters.

"This feels like the last, best chance for the court," says Bernardine Dohrn, director of the children and family justice center at Northwestern University's law school. "You have management at the court that is unified, and wants to make changes. The feeling is that things have to get better, now or never."

A similar feeling of urgency lay behind the creation of the Juvenile Court. Jane Addams, the Chicago social reformer, was outraged at the treatment children received in adult courts. In 1899, she persuaded the Illinois Legislature to establish a separate juvenile court. By 1925, 46 states had adopted the idea.

That early court, Addams wrote, behaved as a "kind and just parent," holding informal hearings and connecting offenders with community resources such as vocational schools. In the court's first two years, the number of children in county jail fell from 1,705 to 60, according to "A Kind and Just Parent," a new book by education Professor William Ayers.

That vision eroded, judges and lawyers say. By 1994, independent reports described the court as "under siege." The 495-bed detention center held 842 children. Cases became backlogged as the number of children coming through the juvenile-justice side rose by 50 percent. Abused children spent more time as wards of the court in Cook County -- an average of five years -- than in any other city.

When O'Connell took over as chief judge of the county's Circuit Court in late 1994, he declared "a crisis of public confidence" in the Juvenile Court.

He split the Juvenile Court into divisions -- juvenile justice and child protection -- and appointed two aggressive former prosecutors, William J. Hibbler and Nancy S. Salyers, as presiding judges. O'Connell began regular meetings with local pastors, beefed up the court's counseling and computing services and sought financial help from charities and universities.

The biggest change has been in the quality of judges. O'Connell requires judges to spend two years in Juvenile Court before moving on to prestigious appointments in Criminal Court. Two jurists liked Juvenile Court so much that they turned down the promotion. "Now, for the first time, the juvenile bench has a waiting list," he says.

The new judges have moved aggressively. To reduce no-shows, Hibbler has ordered that everyone scheduled to appear be phoned in advance of the court date. He has presided over a courtroom devoted to settling old cases and warrants.

Salyers, who publishes a newsletter about the court, has staggered court appearances to reduce the time families and children must wait to see a judge. For more than a year, she worked weekends to eliminate a 12,000-case backlog.

Both judges insist on openness. Local ministers, professional storytellers, even reporters roam through the gleaming white, newly renovated building, sitting in on cases or -- outside the child-protection courtrooms -- chatting with children in clean play areas where toys abound. During the summer, 50 local teen-agers, some of whom have had brushes with the court, work here.

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