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Troubled juvenile detention center in spotlight at Cook County Board meeting

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The Cook County Board of Commissioners approved on Wednesday a one-year contract extension for security services at the county’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center despite vocal opposition from a handful of commissioners and broader questions about the facility, which is under federal control.

Commissioners approved by voice vote a $2.2 million extension of its contract with Jupiter, Fla.-based G4S Secure Solutions Inc., known as the Wackenhut Corporation until 2010. The contract is for security, “including night watch, … direct residential supervision and emergency staffing,” according to the county ordinance. The Florida-based company has snared $15.5 million in county money for security services since 2008, when a federal judge put the detention center under the helm of transitional administrator Earl Dunlap.

Dunlap, who continues to serve as the facility’s transitional administrator, was not at Wednesday’s board meeting.

Commissioner John Fritchey (12th) assailed the contract “as the type of thing that blows up on all of us.”

Fritchey remarked that G4S Secure Solutions has repeatedly returned to the county requesting contract-cost increases and that the detention center has never explored an alternative vendor. “When I see a contract that has grown tenfold in size without a competitive bid, that raises a lot of red flags,” Fritchey said.

Under the federal decree, the county must ask a federal judge for permission to do business with a different security company. County officials acknowledged Wednesday that they have not sought legal permission to use an alternative vendor.

While some other commissioners echoed Fritchey’s frustration, Commissioner Peter Silvestri (9th) argued that grousing over the contract was “counterproductive” to the larger issue of getting out from under federal control. “We need to get away from the federal court running the juvenile detention center,” he said. “Everyone seems like they want out, but we’re still there.”

Located on the city’s Near West Side, the juvenile detention center has been the subject of lawsuits since the 1990s that stemmed from allegedly unsafe conditions. The center has a maximum capacity of 280, according to a February Chicago Tribune article, and typically sees close to that number of 10- to 16-year-olds on a given night.

After the board meeting, Preckwinkle repeated her call to empty out the detention center. “We’d be better served by having smaller facilities around the county,” Preckwinkle told reporters. “That’s the best practice these days.”

Such a policy, though, likely requires the end of federal receivership. Preckwinkle offered no timetable, but she said, “We’re trying to get the courts to agree” to end federal control.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners approved a measure for Preckwinkle’s office to take control of a jail release program designed to reduce the county’s jail population. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart currently administers the program, under which qualified inmates in the county jail are freed but required to wear an electronic tracking bracelet.

The resolution points out that since March of 2011 “only 250 detainees have been released under the Sheriff’s Administrative Release Program with limited impact on reducing the jail population.”

The county president claimed that her office could ramp up the program, thereby saving the county money. Preckwinkle said $143 each day is spent on a single jail inmate, while it costs the county approximately $70 a day to electronically track someone. 

Photo Caption: 

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, located at 1101 S. Hamilton Ave. on Chicago's Near West Side (Zol87 via Wikimedia Commons)