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Changing the Criminal Injustice System, Part 1

Hands and jail bars_331x331Cook County (Ill.) Sheriff Tom Dart–who oversees the largest single-site jail in the United States–announced Tuesday that his office is establishing an Office of Mental Health Policy and Advocacy, as well as a 24-hour mental health hotline for Cook County detainees and their families. Dart has been an outspoken voice on systemic mental health and justice reform; the Adler School Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice has worked with his office and others to implement a number of new approaches within the Cook County system. 

Below is part one of an article about those initiatives that was published in our summer 2012 magazine Gemeinschaftsgefühl.

On this February Wednesday, a dozen or so inmates fill the chairs of a fluorescent-lit classroom at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, part of a sprawling complex on Chicago’s West Side that is courthouse, jail, school, infirmary, and—until their cases are adjudicated—home to about 260 boys, ages 10 to 16.

The boys are here to talk with clinical/community psychologist Elena Quintana, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Adler School’s Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice [IPSSJ], about their lives and violence: why they think people become violent, why they think violence becomes a norm in some communities and not in others.

“I remember the day I became a criminal,” one 11-year-old boy says. “It was the day my stepdaddy hit this girl over the head with a hammer.”

His story comes tumbling out: A girl broke into their house. In trying to get out, she pushed the boy’s sister out the door. The boy’s stepfather grabbed the intruder, took her to the basement, duct-taped her to a chair, and hit her with a hammer. The first blow dislocated her jaw. The second and subsequent blows bashed her skull. The boy saw it all.

“How did you feel when you saw that?” Quintana asks.

He pauses. “You know, I laughed at first, but then I felt sad, and I stayed sad for a very long time.”

Conversations like this are all too common in Quintana’s work with detained youth and adults, their families, correctional officers, social service and mental health professionals, and all those involved with the burgeoning criminal justice system.

That system burgeons today like never before. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and more than 4.9 million remain in the system under supervised probation or parole.

Reports on jail and prison populations and those re-entering the community after incarceration show that double-digit percentages of these populations suffer from mental illness— and systems are not equipped to help them. In Illinois in February, for example, cuts to public mental health led Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to publicly decry that the Cook County jail serves as the state’s largest mental health services provider—with an estimated 20 percent of its detainees and those jailed suffering serious mental health problems.

The complexity of poverty, housing, conflict, violence, and other social determinants of mental health that drive these problems drives Quintana and the IPSSJ’s focus on changing them—through programs focused on juvenile justice, adult corrections, violence prevention, re-entry mental health services and restorative justice.

All are directed toward meeting public safety challenges with socially just solutions—through building public safety systems that address trauma rather than recreating it, through supporting a cultural shift away from punishment and towards accountability, and through helping organizations develop safety strategies that promote functionality and wellness.

Programs that IPSSJ is putting to work in Cook County, Illinois—the state that has been leading the United States in prison population growth—are intended to impact individual lives and systems, as models of public safety and social justice for detention facilities and communities around the country and world.

“Public safety deals with criminality,” Quintana says. “But criminality itself is a construct—as a society, we decide what behavior is criminal and what is not, just as we decide how we will respond to crime, and what the goal of that response should be, retribution or rehabilitation. And each of our decisions carries consequences.

“We need to begin to ask ourselves: Why do so many of our policies effectively create a permanent underclass, debilitating families and neighborhoods, and leaving children without emotional, social, or economic supports? How is it that we sanction, in the name of public safety, a system that imprisons 11-year-olds?

“If we want to make a more functional society, we need to start rehabilitating our citizens. We have to stop legislating failure, and start implementing policies and systems that work.”