Miguel Rodriguez said he may never have discovered his love for art if it weren’t for a youth program he enrolled in after spending time in a juvenile detention center when he was 13.
He told a crowd at the La Follette Park Fieldhouse last week that youth programs should serve as an alternative for juveniles instead of detention centers because of the benefits of their mentoring programs.
Rodriguez, now 20, said after he was released from the detention center at 1100 S. Hamilton St., he was placed in the youth council organization Broader Urban Involvement and Leadership Development, or BUILD, where he started painting on the walls. Now he said he sells portraits for thousands of dollars.
“I never knew about a youth council up until then,” said Rodriguez who is now an art teacher at the council. “I would’ve never known I could do this if it weren’t for community-based organizations.”
Chicago youth, community organizations and elected officials gathered with Rodriguez at a Nov. 19 meeting to discuss concerns about Cook County juvenile temporary detention centers.
Young people do not leave the juvenile detention centers better equipped to deal with their neighborhoods, according to a report distributed at the meeting hosted by the Cook County Juvenile Justice Task Force. Instead, they leave the centers even more disconnected from their homes, schools and communities, the report said.
The Cook County Justice Juvenile Task Force includes community organizations such as Blocks Together, BUILD, Center of Change, Community Justice for Youth Institute, Fearless Leading by the Youth, Precious Blood Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation and the Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice at the Adler School of Professional Psychology.
The task force is proposing alternatives to detention centers, including reinvesting funds into the community and establishing restorative justice hubs that provide mentorship, mental health care and safe shelter. The justice hubs would serve as training centers for local residents to learn how to become more active leaders in neighborhood safety efforts.
Last year, Cook County spent more than $38 million on juvenile detention centers, according to the report handed out at the meeting. Out of that $38 million, $2.88 million was spent on Austin detention centers.
Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board president, along with commissioners Robert Steele and Jesus Garcia who attended the meeting, said they support the idea of restorative justice hubs and agreed to write a letter to the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative to schedule a meeting with the task force before January. However, the elected officials said they were not confident about getting money to reinvest back into the community.
“We’re facing a very difficult financial situation. That request is unrealistic,” Garcia said.
Alexandria Navatto, a youth organizer at Center of Change, said the task force has met with the same commissioners over the past five years and complained the commissioners can’t keep their promises.
“I was sitting in front of the same commissioners hearing the same thing,” said Navatto, 24. “The same promise they made to them was the same promise they made to us.”
Preckwinkle said the board has worked hard to reduce the number of young people detained at detention centers.
“Out of the detainees, 43 percent are there for a week or less,” Preckwinkle said. “If you’re only going to be there for a week, you don’t need to be there at all.”
Navatto said last year, the number of youth detained at Cook County detention centers decreased from 300 per week to 249 per week.
“How can you tell me you only knocked it down 50 kids?” Navatto said. “You want applause for 50 kids?”
Navatto, who has a 7-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son, said her children are fortunate enough to grow up in positive surroundings. She said her son is part of a break dancing program at the Center of Change.
“He used to break dance when he came into the room. He didn’t think street gangs were cool,” Navatto said. “These programs don’t just affect teenagers, they affect children as young as 6.”