Chicago Public Radio Investigates Juvenile Justice System

You just have to admire the journalists at WBEZ-FM, Chicago Public Radio. They would not take "no" for an answer.

They fought with the governor's office, they rallied public support and, in the end, they got access to the state's juvenile justice system, one that sucks up $100 million in Illinois alone and houses children who too often get caught on a crime carousel. I like that the station does not just report statistics like that without asking what they really mean.

In Chicago alone, cops made 18,000 juvenile arrests last year. The station reported not just on how many people are being arrested, but why. It learned that thousands of those arrests are for simple assault and disorderly conduct -- the kind of thing that once would have been brushed off as kids being loudmouths. The station asked, "Should we really be arresting them and sending them to juvenile detention, or are cops just responding to pressure from school officials?"

Journalism Center on Children & Families profiled the station's efforts to report this hard-to-tell story. The station did not just focus on what happens in juvenile jail, but on the kids' fortunes once they leave. But first, the reporters and photographers had to get past the governor's office:

"Community members also promised to call the Governor’s Office, pledging their support for the reporting. 'People don’t like locked doors and mystery,' says Senior Editor Cate Cahan. 'It heartened us to see their support.'

"The governor reversed his decision and granted the reporters access to multiple juvenile facilities. The result is "Inside and Out," a six-month series which launched Jan. 25, 2010 with a week of stories profiling young people whose lives have tangled with the Illinois juvenile justice system.

"They include: Marcus, a 14-year-old struggling to resist the lure of street life and complete grade school; Angelica, a 19-year-old who has cycled in and out of youth prison twice; and Mario, a 20-year-old college student whose childhood was pockmarked with violence and trauma. The unflinching, unwavering accounts of their troubles with the law raise the question: Can the juvenile justice system rehabilitate young offenders, rather than just detain them?

"Cahan hopes the project will foster discussions about the restructuring of the juvenile justice system.

" 'The heart of this project is assessing whether or not these youth facilities are successful in accomplishing their goals,' she says. 'It’s a good time to shine a light on this institution and foster a discussion about what is being done for these kids.' '''

Take a look at this station's work. It might just encourage you to tackle one of the most difficult and important stories you've ever told.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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