Concerns over racial fairness and equality have led Cook County Juvenile Court officials to search for alternative sentencing measures for African-American and Hispanic youth, and they say the alternatives are working.

“There is a disproportionate [sentencing] issue in Cook County because minorities make up approximately 45 percent of the population, whereas 80 percent of youth locked up are minority,” said Michael Rohan, probation department director at Juvenile Court. “It’s been a reality for a long time, but nobody has addressed it.”

According to Rohan, a decade ago, youths were detained mostly because there were no other options. Today, there are alternatives to detention that give minority delinquents a structured atmosphere, something many don’t have at home.

“We want the least restrictive setting [for the youths] without compromising public safety,” Rohan said.

Officials say most minority youths do not have access to the resources that Caucasian youths do and lack a family support system. By offering alternative community-based programs, minority youths have the opportunity to build self-esteem and discover what they are good at, Rohan said.

In addition, the probation department has diversified its staff to look more like the youth it serves. Former juvenile delinquents are now working as parole officers to help minority youth feel comfortable and safe.

“They are an extension of our community,” Rohan explained. “To be more culturally competent, we want [the probation officers to have] diversity in experience, not just in race, gender or ethnicity.

“They are great role models for the youths,” he continued. “Because of them, the success of our programs has gone up.”

According to probation department figures, the average success rate of youth who are not arrested while in alternative treatment programs is more than 90 percent.

Former teenage delinquent-turned-parole-officer Jason Smith said the youths can relate to him because he lives in their neighborhood and has dealt with the same issues they now face.

“I’m already accustomed to what they’re experiencing,” he said. “I’m able to provide them with direction and advice. They’re already comfortable with me and therefore more willing to do the things I ask of them.”

Placing certain youth into community-based programs instead of detention centers is beneficial because it occupies much of their time, Smith said. The youths take part in structured activities during the evening hours at centers located in poorer neighborhoods with high crime rates, where many of them live. Research indicates that 4-9 p.m. is when teens are most likely to commit crimes.

Not only are alternative programs more beneficial for youth, they also are more cost effective, according to Rohan.

In Cook County, it costs $115 a day to keep a youth in a detention center, but only $33 a day for the youth to attend a community-based alternative program, according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a Washington D.C.-based group.

“If you make sure kids have equal access to alternatives, you will be blown away by the immediate change of [racial make-up] within the [detention] facility,” said Rick Jensen, of the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice in Portland, Ore., in a written statement.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice reported that youth who spend time in detention centers are more likely to be incarcerated in the future.

“Whether a youth spends time in a secure facility or whether that youth gets released into a meaningful community-based alternative is of enormous consequence?”to the youth, his family and to the entire community,” the coalition stated in its 2003 annual report.