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Thursday, March 3, 2011 03:58 am

When a fifth-grader goes to jail

Bill would increase detention age from 10 to 13 and promote alternatives for incarcerated kids

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Fifth-graders are better off learning fractions than serving hard time. With that in mind, Rep. Annazette Collins wants to know why there are fifth-graders in Illinois youth detention centers.

Collins, a Chicago Democrat, is chief sponsor to a bill that would keep children as young as 10 out of detention centers altogether. Her proposed legislation, introduced in Janaury, would boost the minimum age of youth in detention centers from 10 to 13.

Collins has toured the detention facility in Cook County, and believes that children as young as 10 and as old as 12 should not be exposed to a detention center for any length of time.

“What are we going to do with a fifth-grader in jail?” Collins says. “And so it just makes sense that we would use all our resources first before we even keep them in detention.”

 The Illinois State Bar Association is also supporting juvenile detention reform this spring.

“We’re trying to raise the bar, raise the awareness that there’s a need, a rather urgent need for reform in the juvenile justice area,” says Mark D. Hassakis, president of the Illinois State Bar Association. The ISBA partners with the Illinois Bar Foundation, a “charitable arm” of the ISBA, to explore legal issues like those in juvenile justice.               

Hassakis recently spent time touring Cook County’s detention center with Betsy Clark, president and founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative. Hassakis promotes awareness of alternatives to incarceration for youth under the age of 18.

  Collins reasons that youth as young as 10 should not be removed from their families. Children may be traumatized by the experience.

Under the bill, no minor can be held longer than 12 hours unless they’ve committed a criminal offense, and 12-year-olds can be placed in a detention center for up to 30 days.

 “The10-year-olds can’t be there very long so we want to try and make it so they’re not there at all,” Collins says.

 Terry Moore, assistant director of Sangamon County Court Services, has followed the bill. He says there are already measures in place to screen youth before they are placed in detention centers.

While an argument for the bill says children as young as 10 should not be exposed to detention centers, Moore says the other side is that most children that young are not admitted to detention  centers, except for severe offenses.

Over the past five years, only 4 to 7 percent of children admitted to detention centers have been under the age of 13.

“It’s a very small number of youth relative to the total admitted,” Moore says.

Detention gives juvenile court the opportunity to look at the situation of each child and determine their best interest, he says, which sometimes may be short-term placement in a detention center.

Others like Ryan Williams, associate professor of criminal justice at University of Illinois Springfield, believe even a short-term stay may lead to a long-term problem.

  “If you put a 10-year-old in a detention center for any significant length of time, that could damage their entire school year,” says Williams.    He believes that time spent away from a traditional class setting can make for a difficult transition back into a regular school environment after being in a detention center.

Nearly 118 bills related to juvenile justice have been filed in the General Assembly during spring session, showing a heightened interest in issues related to children who break the law.

Contact Holly Dillemuth at hdillemuth@illinoistimes.com.

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