"The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center has spiraled into a wasteful, disorganized, abusive cesspool. The people who have run the place ... have little or no experience for their lofty jobs." — Sept. 7, 2005, Tribune editorial
A delicate transition is underway. Control of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, described here nine years ago as an administrative "cesspool," is about to get new leadership.
Juvenile justice expert Earl Dunlap has done an extraordinary job since he was brought on in 2007 to run the center, part of an agreement in a federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. Dunlap, though, will leave the job soon.
Around the time that Dunlap came on duty, authority over the center shifted through state law from the president of the Cook County Board to the chief judge of the circuit court. This was part of a concerted effort to isolate the damage caused by the chaotic reign of then-County Board President Todd Stroger.
The detention center was a patronage haven for Stroger and, before that, his father, Board President John Stroger. They let their friends, family and precinct captains run the place. Staff members were accused of mentally and physically abusing juveniles. There was a dangerous, filthy environment.
Todd Stroger was dumped by voters in 2010, and we'd be more than pleased if control of the juvenile center were to revert to his no-nonsense successor, Toni Preckwinkle.
But it doesn't. The law says it goes to Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who will find a successor to Dunlap.
That raises new concerns. Evans hasn't built a strong track record for management of the courts.
Cases move slowly, prisoners languish in Cook County Jail, serious problems have been exposed in various corners of the court system.
A recent Tribune investigation found that the county's probation department — under Evans' control — lost track of hundreds of convicts. A follow-up investigation showed that the probation department has a practice of working with Chicago police and the FBI to conduct searches that go beyond the proper scope of its monitoring of some 24,000 probationers.
Court management has been so lackluster that the Illinois Supreme Court has stepped in, at the urging of Preckwinkle. The high court has brought in retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Ben Miller and retired U.S. District Judge David Coar to push for reforms.
This is a fragile juncture for the detention center, which holds juveniles awaiting trial. It has improved under Dunlap, but it's the kind of place that could slip back into chaos under ineffective leadership.
The detention center's future rests on Evans' choice of an administrator. The federal court is still watching. The judge who oversees the ACLU lawsuit has called on Evans to conduct a national search for a new leader.
Earl Dunlap cleaned house: He fired incompetent and abusive staff members, hired hundreds of skilled professionals and fought unions that tried to block his changes. He instituted a zero tolerance policy for abuse and tried to reunite more kids with their families to reduce the center's population. The federal court backed him up along the way.
The next administrator needs to be like Dunlap: determined and independent. Evans could start to restore his reputation by finding a top-notch leader, one who has a vision for juvenile justice and the gumption to enforce his or her orders. No patronage hacks need apply.