The Annie E. Casey Foundation: Helping vulnerable kids & families succeed
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JDAI interviews Cook County Juvenile Judge Carol Kelly

The Honorable Carol Kelly is in her 18th year as a judge for the Circuit Court of Cook County (Illinois) Juvenile Justice Division. In her 19 years on the bench she has helped develop innovative options such as home confinement, evening reporting, and pretrial services. She also led the effort to create a special probation unit to address the needs of young women. Judge Kelly is active in the community and received her law degree from Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

In what ways has detention reform shaped you as a judge?
When I first arrived in Cook County, a jurisdiction of six million people, including Chicago and the surrounding communities, my only option was to lock youth up or send them home. Frankly that left me without any options at all. JDAI gave me a range of alternatives that I could adjust to fit the needs of the child and their family.

It has always been very important to me to get input from the parents. I always ask parents at the initial court appearance about their concerns and what they think they need. Whenever possible I try to address those issues immediately. Over the years, as we crafted alternatives and became more flexible, I have been able to offer families strategies and solutions to what they see as their pressing issues and concerns. Whenever possible I like to work in partnership with families whose children come before our court.

Detention reform has helped to make me be a better judge.
How do you cope with stress?
I love to read and do things with my grown children. Also, I am a foster parent, and that gives me a lot of joy. In my position on the court I am uniquely aware of the risks facing children in the child welfare system and their likelihood of ending up in the juvenile justice system. Over the course of my career I have seen so many children whose lives might have been different if a caring adult had been available to them, and I felt there was a need for good foster parents. I love being a foster parent. I recommend it highly.

Have your opinions on detention changed over the years?
I have come to believe that whenever possible we should do everything within our power to keep kids out of detention. Obviously there is a time and place for detention – it’s essential to ensure public safety. But I try to use every tool in the toolkit, everything in our arsenal that is available to me to find a better solution for the children who come into my court.

What do you love about being a judge?
I love that I have the opportunity to help kids get on the right path before they end up in the adult system.

Cook County, like any urban court, sees a lot of poverty and drug use. The schools lack adequate resources and families struggle to do right by their children. Given the overwhelming obstacles, it is gratifying when things work out well.

To what do you attribute the significant decline in population in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center?
The probation department has been working tirelessly in an effort to move kids quickly out of secure detention and into shelter care or other temporary alternatives.

A simple thing like switching our electronic monitoring program from radio frequency technology to global positioning systems eliminated the requirement for a home phone. Judges have more confidence in this system, being able to locate youth at any time, and are now more likely to put a youth on electronic monitoring without an overnight stay in detention.

It has been our experience that when we combine a number of small incremental reforms, they can really add up to substantial reduction in population. I think that is what you are seeing.

See related article, Cook County detention population at lowest level in 30 years.