Extra! Cook County Hires a Pro

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Chicago Tribune — Editorial

August 5, 2007

After making one stunningly boneheaded move after another, creating a disaster at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, county commissioners this week did something amazing.

They got it right.

The board agreed to hire a nationally respected juvenile justice expert named Earl Dunlap to turn around the detention center. They resisted the usual impulse to hire a politically connected flunky, a golfing buddy or one of their nephews.

They chose Dunlap, a towering, folksy man from Effingham, in south-central Illinois. Just as important, they agreed to confer enough financial and executive authority on Dunlap to let him do a thorough housecleaning at the Southwest Side facility.

The board’s approval Tuesday avoids what was likely to be an unflattering series of hearings in federal court. The American Civil Liberties Union recently asked a federal judge to appoint a receiver to manage the facility, citing deteriorating conditions and an unsafe environment for kids. Had the county continued to balk at that demand, its shoddy management of the facility would have been aired in court.

The agreement to bring in Dunlap will be presented to U.S. Judge John Nordberg in federal court on Tuesday. Nordberg is expected to sign off. Dunlap will report to the federal court, rather than to county officials. That’s important too.

Dunlap is likely to need at least a year, perhaps longer, to make necessary changes and stabilize the center. Then he will turn over authority to Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who will get control of the center under new state legislation.

“Dunlap is a guy with a track record of success,” said Benjamin Wolf of the ACLU, which represents youths at the center in a long-running federal consent agreement regarding poor conditions there.

The good news: Dunlap will likely start in two weeks. The bad news: Dunlap plans to spend only three and a half days a week there, partly because he has commitments at other juvenile facilities around the country. But even a part-time Dunlap will be a vast, vast improvement over the shoddy management the center has known.

So what will he bring to Cook County?

“He’s not a firebrand, radical reformer, but he’s a person who understands the functions of detention and knows when he sees something that’s well-run and when he sees a center that’s not,” said Jeffrey Butts, a research fellow at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children.

Dunlap recently visited Cook County’s detention center, connected to the juvenile court complex at Ogden and Roosevelt Roads. By several reports, he was a quick study.

If some of the unqualified patronage hacks inside the center are equally quick studies, they’re updating their resumes now.

Chicago Tribune