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Program swaps jail time for community service; Aims to set juveniles on right path

At 7:20 a.m., on a cold Sunday in March, the court is closed and the sidewalk outside deserted. Inside the main doors of the Cook County Juvenile Center, nine teenagers quietly wait in the entrance area in front of the security post, one pacing while the others sit on raised vents against the glass walls. A few are Hispanic, but most have varying shades of light or dark brown skin. The only other person in sight is an officer perched up in the large round information desk past the gates and metal detectors.

Slumped against the window with his hood covering his face, Anthony and the other young men sentenced to community service wait for the probation officer to arrive. Anthony (whose full name is being withheld because he is a minor) is missing church and music classes to be here.
Judges have the option of sentencing nonviolent minors to work in the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program for the same number of days they would have in detention. One high school senior, Tyrone vaguely admits he made “mistakes.” Another young man speaks loudly and self-assured, saying he’s there because of money.
“Sell a bag of weed, a bag of dope,” he says. “It’s all about money.”
A quiet high school sophomore says he’s there for fighting in school – sentenced for strong-arm and battery.
Anthony says he was in his West Side neighborhood walking on the same side of the street as some other young men when the police stopped and picked them all up.
 “That made it seem like I was with them,” he says.
The minimum sentence for S.W.A.P. is five days and the maximum is 30 days. During the school year, those who serve out their time here only come on weekends. The young men each know how many days of S.W.A.P. they have left.
Tyrone says he has two days left.
“When I’m done, I’m putting a restraining order on myself against this place,” he jokes, talking about how he hopes to never see the center again.
On a weekday morning, the sidewalk opposite the Cook County Juvenile Center on Hamilton Street is crowded with people waiting for the bus. Inside people wait on faded pink padded benches and in the parole offices.
Down the hall, parents stand outside courtrooms with young or teenage children, waiting for their turn to see the judge for child custody, protection or delinquency cases. Most of the young men wear hoodies and sneakers, but one or two wear a suit a size or so too big.
Upstairs, detainees wait for their time in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center to be over. Fifteen years ago, the detention center held almost 850 minors, according to the Correctional Association of New York. Since then, alternatives to detention like S.W.A.P. as well as changes to sentences for minor infractions reduced the average detention population to less than 450.
When Officer Chris Murray arrives at the juvenile detention center on Hamilton Street, he instructs them to line up in front of the metal detector and put anything in their pockets in the plastic trays. A stocky African-American man who is a Cook County deputy sheriff  has a sharp tone that reflects his military background.
When a boy has a small bottle of cologne, Murray tells him, “Take it home or throw it away.” The young man starts to protest, but Murray repeats the mandate twice then decides for him. He’s going home and coming back for S.W.A.P. next week, the cologne thrown in the trash. Murray later explained that the boy also had a cigarette lighter in his shoe.
He tells the young men to take out earrings, keep hats off and pants up, then takes attendance. Two of the boys aren’t on the attendance list. The computer system in the office is down and Murray can’t check their cases. Murray says they have to call their probation officers and come back next week.
“Call home and stay out of trouble,” Murray says as he sends the two teens home.
In 2010, 456 minors were sentenced to S.W.A.P with 67 percent of them completing their required days, according to S.W.A.P. If participants miss community service days, they get thrown out of the program, or those boys whose service hours are close to being fulfilled, could be sent back to a judge for a review date. “The judge will send them back to S.W.A.P., or lock them up,” Murray says, adding that he tries to talk to the boys and “get a feel for who’s who.” He remembers one day, when he took aside a young man who frequently started riots to ask him why he was fighting. The boy started crying.
“They don’t have the guidance,” Murray says. “There are too many missing fathers.”
On that recent day that Murray led the program, three of six young men in attendance said they know their father. Only the quiet sophomore said he lives with his father.
Anthony, the young man who says he was picked up by police while walking on the same side of the street as a group of young men, said he lived in three different shelters with his mother and siblings before their first apartment. He guesses he was 8 or 9 years old then. Now, he lives with his aunt, he says, and his eight siblings are all separated, some living with their aunt, grandmother or mother. He is the second oldest; his sister was born when his mother was 15.
“My mama wants us back but she needs to get more responsible. She drinks too much,” he says. “My dad is at 26th and California.”
Donning neon yellow vests and latex gloves, the young men pick up trash outside the juvenile center, empty garbage cans, sweep and mop the entrance area and hallway. Later, they will pile into a county van to drive to clean up another site.
 While the young men work, they chat and joke with each other and the officers nearby. Like most young men, their conversations include cars, girls, video games and music. When the subject turns to love, marriage and the military, Murray joins to give advice the way a father might talk to his sons.
The young men turn to ask him questions and listen. “You ever thought of being a motivational speaker?” Tyrone asks.
Seniors, Tyrone and Anthony talk about college. Anthony says he learned to play piano using the tutorials on his aunt’s keyboard and wants to go to school to for music or music business.
“I don’t want a job, I want a career,” he says. He doesn’t want to go to a community college and has thought about going to Columbia College Chicago. He’s worried that he doesn’t know much about music theory.
They try not to look at the clock, avoiding counting the minutes until 2 p.m. when S.W.A.P. ends. Tyrone groans and covers his ears when someone says it’s 10:39 a.m.They still have hours to wait.
By Shannon McFarland

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