You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Surge in Chicago violence highlights teens in trouble and efforts to save them: ‘The stakes feel higher.’

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/14/2022 Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune
Adolfo Davis at Precious Blood Ministries in Chicago on March 10, 2022. Davis was mentored at Precious Blood Ministries while serving a 30-year-sentence for a murder he committed at age 14. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS Adolfo Davis at Precious Blood Ministries in Chicago on March 10, 2022. Davis was mentored at Precious Blood Ministries while serving a 30-year-sentence for a murder he committed at age 14.

The realistic painting in vivid colors by Adolfo Davis shows two sides of the same street, one bathed in sunlight with a college and an art center and the word “choices” written along the curb. On the other, a prison, a Chicago police surveillance camera, crime scene tape, a memorial and protest signs reading “Stop the violence” and “Enough.”

Smack dab in the middle of the painting — “Choices,” which hangs in one of the reporting centers for court-involved youths in Cook County — is a young person straddling both a place of promise and one of despair.

This high-stakes intersection that Chicago’s youths find themselves in has been brought into sharp relief in recent months in a series of troubling crimes: a 16-year-old already serving a probation sentence for three carjackings accused of fatally shooting 8-year-old Melissa Ortega; another 16-year-old on electronic monitoring for two gun cases charged with killing a 15-year-old by shooting him first in the head, then nine times as he lay on the sidewalk; and an 11-year-old cited in six different carjacking incidents, including some that involved armed robbery.

Adam Toledo's image appears on a memorial for him, April 15, 2021, near the alley where he was fatally shot by police in the Little Village neighborhood. © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS Adam Toledo's image appears on a memorial for him, April 15, 2021, near the alley where he was fatally shot by police in the Little Village neighborhood.

About 900 youths are currently under the jurisdiction of the Cook County juvenile probation office, sentenced to either probation or supervision or awaiting trial. A portion of them are on electronic monitoring. Just 78 are housed in juvenile detention.

Children have not been spared in the recent surge in gun violence, with an increase in shootings, both fatal and nonfatal, for youths 17 and younger over the past two years. Still, the number of young people being monitored by the probation office has been declining in recent years, along with arrests in the city of Chicago.

A person walks past a memorial in honor of 8-year-old Melissa Ortega who was shot and killed while walking her mother in Little Village in January. © Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS A person walks past a memorial in honor of 8-year-old Melissa Ortega who was shot and killed while walking her mother in Little Village in January.

The recent surge in gun violence, including carjackings, has led to increased calls for a more punitive response for offenders in general.

But those working in the system strongly caution that juveniles need to remain a special consideration in the criminal justice system, stressing that brain research does not support a return to punitive responses, which were deployed years ago to address violence. They also point to the challenges young offenders face, saying before they were a shooter or a carjacker, they were likely some combination of hungry and poor and traumatized by the violence happening on the blocks where they are supposed to thrive.

And this was before the pandemic produced more challenges, including limiting in-person schooling and other chances for social interaction and guidance.

Juvenile court files, interviews and public records of some recent cases reviewed by the Tribune show the cases to be complicated by underlying challenges and trauma for the young people involved. They have lost parents to incarceration and to violence. Some were coping with the loss of loved ones before they were arrested. One appeared in court virtually on the very day he committed a new offense, with prosecutors noting he was shirtless; a judge instructed him to dress properly.

Miquel Lewis, acting director of Cook County Juvenile Probation & Court Services, speaks to a group of probation officers during a tour of Bishop Shepard Little Memorial Center, which operates partially as a TASC Reporting Center, on Feb. 23, 2022. © Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS Miquel Lewis, acting director of Cook County Juvenile Probation & Court Services, speaks to a group of probation officers during a tour of Bishop Shepard Little Memorial Center, which operates partially as a TASC Reporting Center, on Feb. 23, 2022.

Davis, the artist who painted “Choices,” was initially sentenced to life in prison for a double murder he committed at age 14, only to be released in 2020 after a resentencing. He said he knows all of this firsthand because he lived it.

“A lot of people just look at the crime itself and they never ask themselves, ‘How did this young person wind up at this place in his life?’” said Davis, now 45. “Like myself, I come from an unstable home. I had went to the streets to take care of myself. I didn’t start off in a gang. Being in the street, and being used by other people, ya’ll become friends. And it leads to one thing to another.”

Community-based intervention

The concept of a juvenile court was originated in Chicago more than 100 years ago, when activists pushed for a separate system that helps children and their families while protecting the public.

In the wake of both the two-year surge in violence and increased concerns about the role of youth, the Cook County juvenile probation office is now directing all young people on electronic monitoring to report to one of five community-based social service agencies that are contracted by the county. And Chicago Public Schools officials are about to launch a new project to target students who are failing to turn up at school with intense outreach.

“A lot of people just look at the crime itself and they never ask themselves, ‘How did this young person wind up at this place in his life?’” said Adolfo Davis. Davis was sentenced to life in prison for a double murder he committed at age 14 only to be released in 2020 after a resentencing. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS “A lot of people just look at the crime itself and they never ask themselves, ‘How did this young person wind up at this place in his life?’” said Adolfo Davis. Davis was sentenced to life in prison for a double murder he committed at age 14 only to be released in 2020 after a resentencing.

The courts and juvenile justice system are directed by state statute to try to avoid detention or incarceration of juveniles and to instead exhaust all community-based options for rehabilitation.

When young people are severely penalized for committing a crime, they are more likely to recidivate, meaning harsher penalties apparently do not reduce juvenile crime, explained Stephanie Tabashneck, senior fellow in law and applied neuroscience at the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior and the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard University.

“One of the challenges is that most children get out of prison and they don’t stay there,” Tabashneck said. “And so then we release kids who are far more traumatized and are ill equipped to manage the real world because they have been in highly restrictive environments that do not mirror the real world.”

On the flip side is the potential to reach children in trouble with interventions, she said. Children need mentorship and opportunities to engage in social activities in their community, Tabashneck said.

“Developments in neuroscience and behavioral research have really been groundbreaking in terms of how we understand youth criminal behavior,” Tabashneck said. “We know that children are teachable, their brains are wired for learning and they have a tremendous capacity for change.”

Today the management of cases for young offenders falls to the office of Juvenile Probation & Court Services, which has about 200 officers available to manage cases.

At the end of February there were just over 900 youths who were either serving a sentence, of probation or supervision, or had a pending case. The office also was monitoring 250 youths on electronic monitoring.

The mission of the department has not changed in the more than two decades since Miquel Lewis, the acting director of juvenile probation services, was first hired to work as a probation officer, he told the Tribune recently during a tour of one of the department’s reporting centers.

Officers assigned to the cases are tasked with establishing a relationship with every child and family in their caseload, determining what is driving the criminal conduct and finding social services close to their homes.

This means constantly finding and vetting local community organizations in neighborhoods, which has been a challenge, Lewis said, given the inherent instability in funding for such organizations.

County probation officers averaged 13 cases in 2020, but Lewis also acknowledged that some officers can carry caseloads as high as 20. And while he has recently filled 10 positions, some of his budgeted positions remain unfilled, Lewis said without giving a number.

Lewis said the recent surge in violence has ramped up the pressure on a system that was already lacking what adults need to help most children readjust their behavior: time.

“A key (thing), which is not always on probation’s side is time. Because every young person requires some time to receive the message, the support, and then for them to have the moment when it will all make sense,” he said. “And of course when we are talking about public safety, communities want their communities to be safe now. ... And of course residents of our communities don’t care about the process. They want to see the outcome.”

Lewis has directed his probation officers to refer all their youth on EM to also report to one of five supervised day and evening programs for court-involved youth that are run by city social service agencies.

But it can take just one tragic case, an example of a youth who defies the orders of a judge and doesn’t totally accept the help offered in the community, to challenge the mission, said Matt DeMateo, executive director of New Life Centers, which works with both victims and offenders in the Little Village neighborhood.

‘Love, grace and mercy’


Video: Chicago city leaders discuss crime on the West Side (CBS Chicago)

UP NEXT
UP NEXT

DeMateo’s organization was counseling teenager Emilio Corripio when he was accused in the January shooting of 8-year-old Melissa Ortega. And his staff has since also helped Melissa’s family cope.

“This is a space where I would say love, grace and mercy — they are the only things big enough to take in both sides of a gun,” DeMateo said. “It’s only the grace of God and boundless love and compassion, and that we try to lead with that can take in all sides of a community and all sides of an argument.”

The shooting death of 8-year-old Melissa happened in broad daylight on Jan. 22 on a bustling Little Village street.

Authorities say Corripio, who was 16 at the time, opened fire on gang rivals. Prosecutors said he struck one on the street and also sprayed a car, forcing a father inside to take cover with his young daughter, and also fatally hit Melissa, who was walking nearby with her mother.

In charging Corripio as an adult, prosecutors announced he had been cited in three armed carjackings in juvenile court, where just a month earlier he’d been sentenced to intensive probation.

Public opinion quickly swayed against Corripio, as social media rippled with posts about how he should have been locked up in the wake of the carjackings.

Meanwhile, Melissa’s mother issued an extraordinary public statement in which she called for the justice system to proceed, but also forgave Corripio.

“To the aggressor. I forgive you. You were a victim too. As a 16-year-old, the community failed you, just like it failed my precious baby,” her mother said.

Corripio’s sentence to three years of probation came with requirements that he cut gang ties and continue with mentoring and counseling.

Several observers familiar with juvenile court told the Tribune that it is not surprising that Corripio was sentenced to probation, based on the current directives to exhaust all efforts to rehabilitate a youth close to home, rather than in custody of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.

Those who work with youths say it’s challenging work, given youth brain development, temptation on the street and the sheer scope of the problem now in the city.

“We are trying our best to slow the bleeding, to heal the families,” said New Life’s DeMateo, whose team continues to support Corripio today. “But … we’ve buried over 140 young people in the past 25 years.”

On March 4 Corripio appeared in court, having just turned 17 and wearing thick glasses and a face mask as he sat at a table in juvenile detention center listening to the adults discuss his case. His attorney, Edith Rios, entered a plea of not guilty for him.

Corripio’s family declined to comment through Rios. The attorney said that at the time Corripio was accused of committing the carjackings, he was struggling with the loss of his best friend from a shooting he witnessed, she said.

It caused him to stop even trying, she said.

Rios said his family is also hardworking, but struggles financially. In the first two weeks Corripio was locked up, his eyeglasses were broken — and the family was struggling to find money to fix them, she said.

“I’m dealing with a child,” Rios said of her client. “We are going to have to start taking into consideration that they are kids, and their brains are not developed and not just throw them away.”

Peer pressure and teens

Tabashneck, the psychologist and lawyer, noted that adolescent brains are indeed wired differently, and that fact affects their understanding of split-second decisions. Their brains are present-focused and seek stimulation, which renders reckless behavior and poor decision making neurological, she added. That means youth grow out of these characteristics as they enter adulthood, she said.

“The majority of adolescents who commit crimes including serious crimes, like assault and homicide, do not go on to commit future crimes as adults,” Tabashneck said. “They desist from criminal behavior.”

Research also shows that the mere presence of a peer can cause youth to act more recklessly, she added.

Chicago police officials recently described an 11-year-old charged in a series of violent carjackings as “prolific” and a “strong participant,” but in most cases he was among a group of teens, critical to understanding a young offenders’ ability to regulate their actions.

“It’s not even necessarily peer pressure, or, you know, peer coercion. It’s just peer presence,” Tabashneck said. “And we’ve seen this in things like driving studies, where adolescents will behave more recklessly, even when a peer is just watching them.”

That “peer presence” effect goes away in a person’s early to mid-20s as a shift happens in their brain, Tabashneck said.

“So peer presence is really key,” she said. “I mean, in my work, it is very rare that I’ve seen crime involving a minor that did not involve peers. So these crimes tend to happen in groups. And that’s because peer presence increases risk taking behaviors and impulsivity.”

Influence of adults

In Corripio’s case, the pressure might have been even greater. According to the charges against him, he was with a 27-year-old when authorities say he opened fire on a street.

The same dynamic was present in the case of Adam Toledo, 13, who was shot and killed by Chicago police during a foot chase in which the teen was allegedly carrying a gun that had just been fired by a 21-year-old he was with on a Little Village street.

In Corripio’s case, the 27-year-old, an off-duty cabdriver, allegedly drove the teen to rival gang territory, where Corripio got out and opened fire.

Rob Castañeda, co-founder and executive director of Beyond the Ball, a sports-based youth and community development organization in Little Village and on Chicago’s West Side, said it’s sometimes difficult for young people, especially those experiencing social or educational challenges, to distance themselves from older gang members who are sometimes their family or their only social circle.

Castañeda said he’s noticed a lot of the young men in these situations have a learning or cognitive disability.

“They are a lot of times young people who don’t maybe necessarily see themselves as being successful in school or in traditional society,” he said. “And they’re able to get attention from older guys in the streets that they’re not getting in other traditional places.”

Castañeda said there’s opportunity for community organizers to intervene at earlier stages, instead of once a child is already involved in street life.

“I think it’s important for us to have like street intervention programs that are building relationships with people who are out there,” Castaneda said. “But I also think it’s important to have more supports for them. Supports that aren’t dependent on them being involved in the street, but them just being people. People with high level of needs.”

Last week Chicago Public School officials told the Tribune they were finalizing contracts with two of the city’s larger social service agencies for intervention. Outreach workers will be tasked with finding students who are enrolled in school but not turning up.

This year, about 1,500 students failed to appear for classes, and school officials were able to track down information on all but about 300.

It’s this group of “ultra high needs” students that will be the focus of the new pilot. For now, 100 students have been targeted and will be the subject of the outreach, which will include caseworkers first looking for the youth and then trying to steer them back to school and offer other supports, including employment or therapy. The estimated cost to run the program is between $14,000 and $16,000 per student, officials said.

The project has been in planning stages for some time, but Jadine Chou, the chief of safety and security for CPS, said last week that the devastation of the pandemic has increased the pressure on everyone to start delivering more intervention.

“The stakes feel higher than ever before,” said Chou. “Everything that has happened with the pandemic has just made challenges harder for everyone, but especially for our students from high-risk situations.”

‘They gonna release all that anger’

The road to Adolfo Davis’ life sentence at age 14 started when he was 9 years old and hungry, he told the Tribune.

Looking to make cash, Davis, the artist whose work hangs in the reporting center, was trying to muscle his way in at a local gas station, where he’d offer to pump gas for customers. This, and hustling outside grocery stores to carry shoppers’ bags for them, was how he compensated for a family that was not able to take care of him, he said.

His efforts to find a spot at the gas station led to a confrontation with other youths working there, and after he defended himself with an empty whiskey bottle, they invited him to join their group. Those kids had older brothers who were selling drugs, and it was only a matter of time before Davis was more deeply involved in the street life, he said.

In the past year or so since his release, Davis worked at Precious Blood Ministry in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, a program that works directly with court-involved young people — and one that helped him survive incarceration when he was locked up 30 years ago.

As he reflected on his case and the youths he has mentored, Davis lamented that those kids today are still struggling for basic needs like food and to feel loved, and they are also now turning to drugs to self-medicate through their pain. And he’s not persuaded incarceration is any better an option today than it was for him.

“When they get released, they gonna release all that anger on society,” Davis said. “And who gonna get it the most? The people close to them, the people in their communities.”

asweeney@chicagotribune.com

scasanova@chicagotribune.com

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon