Taking a chance on the Chicago youth justice system

Ernest Underhill
Taking a chance on the Chicago youth justice system
Sunday, 26 August 2007 - 10:55am

In the middle of a stormy August in Chicago an American colleague invites me out to the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre to see a new play called August: O’sage County by Pulitzer Prize finalist Tracy Letts. It’s billed as a “three-act, three-and-a-quarter-hour, 13-character family saga with ‘traumatic autobiographical resonances and large aspirations'”. Letts is a member of the Steppenwolf Ensemble and he’s told Chicagomag.com “It's just hard. It's the hardest thing I've done. It. Is. The. Hardest.
Thing. I've. Done. It's a hard play."
It’s. Certainly. Courageous advertising!

Essentially, the play paints a picture of a highly dysfunctional family. Afterwards I’m asked if I think the dysfunction is of a sort special to the US – do such families exist in England? And, of course, the whole scene is actually very familiar and I’d say universal, except in relation to the O’sage context. Overbearing mothers, sibling friction, lazy, abusive men. Just like Christmas back home.

Next; similar thing. I visit the the Children’s Court in Chicago – the first of its kind in the world and an eye-opener to a UK visitor. I remember the play and the apres-play conversation as I go inside.

Here, too, the detail is different: helpful signs informing witnesses that guns aren’t allowed are still a jolt to the English sensibility. But not as much as the glaring disproportionality. Every child I see is Black or Latino. We have similar problems in England, but not quite to this disturbing degree.

Otherwise, it’s the sameness that’s striking. Every case I observe (child welfare or juvenile justice) could have taken place in a court in England. Children face the same risks. Some are victims of abuse or neglect; most live in deprived neighborhoods and are exposed to violence or drugs. They commit the same type of crime (mostly petty theft or low-level violence). The sorry aftermath of worse gang violence is on show perhaps, but the kids are much more similar than they are different.

And underneath the disproportionate concentration on disadvantaged ethnic groups and the similarity of their offenses, I begin to notice the same flaws in the fabric of the system. As in England, a small proportion of US cases clearly fall into the child welfare remit (known as child protection in the UK). These are generally clear instances of abuse or neglect. There’s also a small proportion that just as clearly falls into the juvenile justice remit (youth justice in the UK) – serious crimes most often against another individual. But they’re in the minority.

The vast majority are nowhere near so clear-cut, and the children responsible for them are arbitrarily directed to one side of the court or another – welfare or youth justice. Where they end up is largely due to how they're identified and picked up, or on the vagaries of the political climate. But the experience that now awaits them, depending on which judicial corridor they're directed down, is very different.

In the Chicago Children’s Court, the divide is hard, sharp and physical – theatrical even. The child welfare side is bright, warm and welcoming (perhaps a little too like an airport lounge). Curved surfaces, comfy seats. The court proceedings are informal; children are addressed by their first names.

But cross the line to the juvenile justice side of the same building and you get looming grey brick walls. You get cold and clinical. A few bright paintings only accentuate the negative. In overcrowded waiting areas children sit scared-eyed on cold plastic benches. For some this will be the last time they see their families before they’re driven away to a detention center.

The thing is the majority of children could have ended up on either of these stage-sets. Up to this point there will have been nothing much to separate their experiences or their needs, other than the judicial accident of where they now find themselves sitting. But what happens today will fundamentally alter whatever’s left of their journey through life.

Tracy. It's that hard.

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