Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle blamed racism for the disproportionate number of African-American juveniles being detained and transferred to adult court in Chicago and said the Cook County State’s Attorney is putting children in jeopardy.
Speaking at a symposium on restorative justice held by the Woods Fund Chicago on Oct. 22, Preckwinkle alternately pounded her fist on the podium and spoke in soft, measured tones as she listed statistics. The numbers reflected discrimination in Cook County justice practices including 97 percent of children in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center are black even though blacks only make up 24.6 percent of Cook County’s general population.
“If you look at our jail population, you would think there are no white people in Cook County,” Preckwinkle said.
Preckwinkle told the audience that from 2010 to 2012, just one of the 257 juveniles, who were automatically transferred to adult court, was white.
“We’re at a place in this country [where], because we have an African-American president some people say we’re beyond race; I will tell you that, of course, that’s not true,” she said. “We still struggle in this country with profound racism.”
Preckwinkle was not shy about assigning blame for the rate of detention and the increased number of juveniles subject to mandatory transfer laws to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
“Of the actors in the criminal justice system, it is the state’s attorney who is most committed to detaining people,” Preckwinkle said. “This is a travesty in my mind.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office declined comment.
Going back to 1982, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill designating certain violent offenses, which would result in automatic transfer of juveniles to adult court without a judge’s input.
Since the state’s attorney determines how to charge an offender, the law, in effect, gave sole discretion over automatic transfer to prosecutors. Preckwinkle said this has resulted in an “appalling” effect of singling out young people of color.
“When judges made the decision there were fewer people transferred and fewer African Americans transferred,” she said. “We know that putting the power to automatically transfer a case in the hands of the prosecutor means that our children are in jeopardy.”
Preckwinkle warned “mass detention of black and brown young people” harms not only the children, but also society.
“The research shows that the deeper you penetrate the criminal justice system as a juvenile, the more likely you are to end up in prison as an adult,” Preckwinkle said.
“Too much detention creates future risk and only the illusion of increased public safety,” she added.
Preckwinkle voiced support for a bill sponsored by Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), which is currently pending before the Illinois General Assembly Rules Committee.The Cook County State’s Attorney opposes the bill, and a representative from the office testified against it in March. But if passed, it would eliminate the automatic prosecution of minors as adults and restore decision-making authority on juvenile transfer to judges.