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A progressive measure intended to keep preteens out of Cook County jails was effectively struck down by an appellate court

Monday, November 04, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Elyssa Cherney

A room at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
A room at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

A Cook County ordinance that would keep children under 13 from being jailed cannot be enforced because an appeals court recently ruled the measure conflicts with state law.

Passed in September 2018, the ordinance was lauded by juvenile justice advocates as a progressive step toward reducing the number of incarcerated youth.

But in a 2-1 decision issued last week, the court held that the county cannot curb judges’ power to send children ages 10, 11 and 12 to detention centers. State law already bars children younger than that from being jailed.

Appellate Court Justice Daniel Pierce noted in the majority opinion that under the Juvenile Court Act of 1987, judges can order detention for children between 10 and 12 in rare cases when they are found to be a danger to themselves or others, or if the minor is likely to flee.


“The General Assembly expressed its intention that the operation and administration of juvenile detention facilities would lie with the judiciary and not in the county board,” Pierce wrote in the 17-page ruling.


Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli, whose office brought the appeal, said she is going to challenge the ruling with the Illinois Supreme Court. Her office represented a 12-year-old boy who was sent to the county’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center last year.

If the high court declines to accept the appeal, Campanelli said she might pursue legislation to change the minimum age for Illinois children entering detention facilities.

An open courtyard at the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Center.
An open courtyard at the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Center. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

“Hopefully it will start a bigger discussion about children, about why we are detaining children in the first place and why we have this barbaric law,” Campanelli told the Tribune. “I don’t think it sets the child on a path of recovery. It’s just going to hurt the child more, and possibly bring more criminality when you lock up kids.”

The ruling comes on the heels of several high-profile cases that have spotlighted the predicament of minors who become entangled in the criminal justice system, both in Illinois and nationwide.

Most recently, the Tribune reported about a 9-year-old boy who appeared in a central Illinois courtroom, charged with murder and arson in a fire that killed five people. The boy’s court-appointed attorney told the judge his client didn’t know what the words “arson” and “alleged” meant.

Earlier this year, Lake County’s top prosecutor dropped a controversial murder charge against five teenagers whose friend was fatally shot by a homeowner while they allegedly attempted to steal a car from his driveway.

In the case involving Campanelli’s client, the boy, now 14, is identified in court papers only as Mathias H. He has already been released from the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center after completing his sentence, but the justices decided to rule on the case to provide guidance in the future, according to the opinion.

They also found the case was a matter of public interest that “bears directly on the welfare of the community," the opinion stated.

Mathias’ case was serious. He was charged with armed robbery after he and his 18-year-old brother, who was said to have a gun, allegedly robbed a GameStop store. A judge put him on electronic monitoring and he went home, but the boy violated the terms of his release — letting the GPS ankle bracelet run out of power and disappearing from his home without permission.

His mother told the judge that he “repeatedly failed to listen to her,” according to court documents.[

Less than a month after the county passed its ordinance, a judge issued an order for Mathias’ arrest after he went missing for a second time and appeared to tamper with the ankle bracelet. Following his arrest, the judge ordered him to the detention center, ruling he “put himself in extreme danger,” records show.

The presiding judge of the county’s Juvenile Justice Division backed the decision. In an October 2018 ruling, he said his judges should be able to order detention in a small number of serious cases where children under 13 repeatedly try to abscond, presenting a risk to themselves and society.

“None of the 15 judges assigned to this division subscribe to the notion that detention is an appropriate placement for young minors, particularly those who are 12 years of age or younger,” Judge Michael Toomin wrote. “Moreover, when children of such tender years must be removed from their homes, our judges routinely seek alternative placements when available.”

The appellate court decision essentially reinforces Toomin’s argument that state law trumps the county ordinance. Toomin declined to comment on the appellate ruling. As of Thursday, none of the 201 children held at the juvenile detention center were under 13, according to data provided by Toomin.

But the opinion was not unanimous. Appellate Justice Michael Hyman penned a dissent, arguing that Cook County can set a minimum age for youth to be detained despite the state law. He concluded that state law is silent on the specific issue of age, and the county can set its own standards under a “home rule" provision.

“We are not asked to decide the merits of incarcerating Mathias H. and children like him; we only decide who gets to make that choice,” Hyman wrote.

The ruling came as a disappointment to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. In a statement, she said confinement of young children can lead to medical, psychological and mental health problems.

”I am hopeful that we can work to secure further alternative programming and services for children to lessen the impact of detention, further lower its use, and help prevent further system involvement for ones so young," she said.


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