A staff member at the Westside Association for Community Action works with a young man as part of the social service agency;s reporting center. Teens are sent to the program as an alternative to detention. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Each teenager was told to write a short essay: If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

Pencils scratched away at notebook paper. The writing of a skinny 15-year-old with deep-set eyes spilled over a page-and-a-half. “If I could change one thing in the world, I would be a leader like Jesus. The way I lived half of my life is not to be excepted [sic] to anybody. I would also change the way we talk to each other and I would take all the guns except the ones the police have and burn them and hope people wouldn’t try to make more.”

It was exactly what staff members at the Westside Association for Community Action like to hear. After being arrested, instead of going to the county’s juvenile jail, the teenager had been ordered to go to this evening reporting program every day from 4 to 8 p.m. There he and 12 other teenagers do their homework, get help from mentors, shoot pool, play cards and eat dinner.

This program is one of a number of innovative initiatives implemented over the past decade aimed at reforming Cook County’s juvenile justice system. Along with programs like the evening reporting center, officials can resolve the cases of juvenile delinquents through peer juries or community boards. The county’s probation department also provides intense supervision for teenagers, requiring them to get help if they have emotional problems or addictions.

About 80 percent of arrested juveniles nationwide show signs of drug or alcohol abuse, found a study released in October by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. The center, housed at Columbia University in New York City, also reported that up to 80 percent of incarcerated youth between 10 and 17 years old have learning disabilities, and nearly 75 percent struggle with mental health problems.

Locally, a number of reforms have helped decrease the number of teenagers who are being hauled into court or held in the county’s juvenile jail, the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

In 1997, the average daily population of the detention center was 657—32 percent over capacity, according to data supplied by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. By 2002, the average daily population had dropped to 393.

The number of teenagers arrested in Chicago has dropped 22 percent during that time, and the number in Cook County who have had charges brought against them in juvenile court has fallen 50 percent.

The Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation spearheaded and paid for some of the initiatives, with help from other national foundations. But all of the players in the Cook County juvenile justice system, including the state’s attorney’s office, judges, probation officers and local law schools, are on board with the efforts and have made them work.

The improvements are one reason why advocates say juveniles now charged as adults would be better served in the juvenile justice system. Even as the reforms have been implemented, the number of teenagers automatically transferred to adult court has not gone down significantly.

Steven A. Drizin, clinical law professor at Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center, said the public once believed that the juvenile justice system was soft on crime and could not adequately prosecute or punish murderers or rapists.

“It used to be that people argued that the juvenile judges couldn’t handle the serious cases,” Drizin said. “But now that we have better and higher quality judges and better services, we are better equipped to handle these cases.”

Judge Curtis Heaston, Cook County Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Division, said he does not want to imply that he approves of teenagers selling drugs or bringing guns to school. However, he said he thinks the juvenile court system can handle these types of offenders. “I don’t think having kids here puts the public at risk,” he said.

Heaston hopes legislators will change the automatic transfer law. In the meantime, he said, he is working with the criminal court system to let those judges know that they too can send teenagers to alternative programs like the one at the Westside Association for Community Action.

A change in the over-arching philosophy of the juvenile justice system has driven many of these reforms, intending to more effectively make an impression on teens who get in trouble with the law.

In 1998, the Illinois legislature passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which called for a “balanced and restorative justice” approach in dealing with such crimes. It aims to show offenders how their actions affect their victims and their communities.

Rather than focus only on changing offenders’ behavior, this method also tries to repair some of the damage done through victim-offender mediation, family counseling and hearings in front of community groups.

For example, young drug dealers might think they have committed victimless crimes. But as part of their punishment, recovered addicts tell them how drugs destroyed their own lives, and community activists share how drugs harm entire neighborhoods.

Catherine M. Ryan, chief of the Juvenile Justice Bureau in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, pushed for the inclusion of balanced and restorative justice in the reform bill. Prosecutors in her office have embraced the approach.

And police will soon begin a related effort. Roberta Bartik, director of juvenile advocacy for the Chicago Police Department, said the department plans to increase its prevention efforts.

With help from a $2 million federal grant, the department is going to open an intervention center later this year. Located at 39th Street and California Avenue, it will enable county prosecutors, public defenders, mental health counselors and juvenile probation officers to work together under one roof. The pilot program will serve teenagers from the South and Southwest sides of the city.

Officers will bring teenagers arrested for non-transferable, low-level crimes to the intervention center, rather than to police stations, and there officials will try to work with teens and their families to figure out what would help to keep the child out of trouble.

Some cases can be resolved before they get to court, Bartik said. Other teens will have to go to court but will still get services. Parents who struggle to control their teenagers can also get help.

Bartik said parents often walk into police stations looking for help handling their teenagers, but police can do little for them at that time. Now the police will have a place to send those families. “I am very, very excited,” Bartik said. “We want to make sure that these teenagers don’t reoffend. That is the ultimate goal.”

Ernie Jenkins, the Westside Association for Community Action’s chief executive officer, has worked with West Side gang members and at-risk youth for 45 years. He said that providing structure is the key to keeping teenagers out of trouble.

“Sometimes kids will just sit there and daydream, so we keep them engaged,” he said. Without a program like his, “these guys would be on the street. Here, they get the same kind of attention that other kids get. –¦ They feel very much like [the program] is theirs.”

As everyone in the evening reporting program sat down to a dinner of chicken and mashed potatoes, the young man who wrote the essay said he had been arrested for hitting a police officer. But he also said the program had made him realize that he’d made a mistake and that he didn’t belong in the criminal justice system.

“None of us kids are criminals,” he said. “None of us deserves to be locked down. Being behind closed doors, in cages—that’s for animals. We shouldn’t be treated like animals.”

He added: “Everybody has to have a second chance.”