OP-ED: Holidays in the Juvenile Justice System

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My wife, Mary Jo, and I were snowbound in Michigan while working on a building project so we lost Thanksgiving with our families in southern Illinois. Missing a holiday with the dozens of brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles got me to wondering – what is the holiday experience for a kid in detention?

I remember ordering some kids to serve detention during holidays as a “tough love” approach to behavioral change and, later, performing population reviews to release as many kids as possible. Because I wanted to know the current experience of judges, detention centers and the kids inside, I talked to Mike Abell, who is a veteran administrator of juvenile facilities and is an expert on juvenile incarceration. Mike is the director of court services in the Second Judicial Circuit of Illinois and was the first superintendent of the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center (FCJDC) when it opened in 2004. FCJDC serves 28 counties in the southern quarter of the state.

I called Mike with several questions about detention in general as well as about the holiday experience. He advised that FCJDC’s population is stable now, but that the tough economy had reduced admissions beginning in 2008. Judges seem to be more aware of and more comfortable with using community-based alternatives to detention.

Although generalizing about 28 different counties with dozens of judges, prosecutors, defenders and probation gatekeepers is difficult, Mike thinks that evidence-based practices, risk screening and the influence of Redeploy Illinois have raised the bar in deciding whether an individual kid is detained. Evening reporting centers, home detention and electronic GPS monitoring is widely used. As a retired judge, I also hear a more enlightened approach to incarceration from most judges.

Mike asked Shawn Freeman, the current superintendent of the FCJDC, to compile population statistics. Shawn is an excellent administrator and confirmed data user. The monthly population totals for 2006 to 2012 show significantly lower daily population averages in December for four of the seven years reviewed. Shawn can remember having more staff than youth during many holidays. Disciplinary incidents are rare on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and visitation by family members increases.

Community involvement with youth in the FCJDC is slight and usually limited to two individuals – a minister and a retired schoolteacher. They talk to the kids, make personal financial contributions and provide weekly non-denominational church services. In most ways, the detention center is invisible to the community except when the media covers county board meetings about budgets.

Stephanie Upchurch, an FCJDC supervisor with a decade of experience at the detention center, emailed the day before Thanksgiving to say that they had created a no school/pizza party day. There were no issues with any of the kids as they played team games and board games. Stephanie polled the kids about Thanksgiving Day plans, and several wanted to see the televised parades and some football. She said, “I really feel they enjoy being out of their rooms the majority of the day and try harder not to receive consequences.”

Shawn said, “My personal philosophy as a floor supervisor was that Christmas and Thanksgiving were the two days I wanted to youth to ‘feel’ like they were not in detention.”

As to problems in general, the detention staff believe that detention is misused when the court or the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services do not have other viable placement options. Some youth cannot be returned to their homes, and detention is seen as a “safe option.” If a youth is a threat to the community or another person, then detention is the right choice. If safety can only be achieved behind bars and locked doors, the system – not the kid – is the problem.

My holiday musings led to these conclusions: the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center in my home community is staffed with caring and compassionate people who understand both their facility’s mission and the juvenile justice system. And they understand that the home cooked dishes they bring for holiday meals is no substitute for a family table for any kid who is not a genuine threat to others.

That snapshot of a child’s Thanksgiving behind bars in southern Illinois was played out under similar conditions throughout America.

Holidays are an important time for families to be together, and no doubt nearly everyone in our country’s juvenile justice systems — from judges to jailers — tries to minimize the number of children behind bars during the holidays. But holiday or not, that should be our goal 365 days a year.

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