By Lori Turner

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.” -Louis L’Amour

As civil rights lawyers, we try to get the biggest bang for our buck by aiming impact litigation to bring about the institutional reforms that will affect the greatest number of people who are suffering as a result of unconstitutional practices. For the Children’s Initiative at the ACLU of Illinois (“ACLU”), this attempt to use the law as a means for systemic change has meant taking on two large government bureaucracies that care for children in custody—the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services2
and the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (“JTDC” or “facility”). The purpose of this Article is to explore the use of impact litigation as a tool for social change by examining the history of the litigation effort and reform process at the JTDC and the ways in which effective institutional reform can improve young people’s lives. I will argue that while impact litigation can be a powerful tool for institutional reform, filing a lawsuit and even winning or settling the litigation is often just the beginning of the struggle. The continued presence of a committed organization to monitor the implementation of the reform, as well as input and engagement from the community, is required to bring about widespread reform and lasting change.

With 498 beds, the JTDC is one of the largest free-standing detention facilities for pre-adjudicated youths in the country. Most residents are fifteen to sixteen years old, but
residents can be as young as ten and as old as twenty-one. Nearly eighty percent of youths housed there are African American, approximately twelve percent are Latino, and approximately ten percent are girls. The average stay at the facility is nearly thirty days, but many youths are in and out in three days. Those youths who will be transferred to adult criminal court stay for more than a year. It is estimated that nearly 6000 young people are housed at the facility each year. Given the many young people’s lives affected by the JTDC each year and the considerable length of time for which a youth might be detained, the institution has the potential to have a lasting impact on a broad range of youths from all over Cook County, Illinois.

In the mid-1990s, the JTDC was a chaotic, overcrowded, mismanaged, and dangerous place. When ACLU lawyers learned about the unsafe conditions and inadequate services, we gained access to the facility in part through clients who were housed there who were also involved in our ongoing child welfare litigation. We were shocked and dismayed by the mistreatment of young residents, many of whom had not been found guilty of any charge or who had been detained for nonviolent status offenses. ACLU filed suit in 1999 in the Northern District of Illinois against Cook County and the facility superintendent(“defendants”) based on a substantive due process theory. The complaint alleged that the JTDC abused and neglected the children it housed, confined them in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, denied them access to educational and recreational programs, and provided them with dangerously inadequate health and mental health services. The federal judge certified a plaintiff class consisting of all of the youths who are or will be confined at the JTDC.

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