“It’s a big problem and I don't have a solution.”
— Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy on punishment for juvenile gun offenders.
CABRINI-GREEN — The story of Rodnell Dennis — an all-too-real tale of how a Chicago kid became a teenage killer — got an influential Illinois judge thinking about how juvenile courts can fail kids who get caught carrying guns.
Rodnell grew up in Cabrini-Green and joined the Gangster Disciples in grade school. He got his first gun at 11. And, at age 13, he murdered an innocent 9-year-old boy while shooting at gang rivals.
While out on parole this summer, Rodnell told DNAinfo Chicago that one of the things that emboldened him to become a young shooter was the lack of punishment he faced every time he got arrested as a kid.
"Rodnell's story is quite tragic and factually correct. He proves the fact that at the first time a juvenile gets caught with a gun something needs to be done to provide services and intervention," Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke said.
Burke said the Cook County juvenile court system might be the best place to start by trying out new ways to rehabilitate kids caught with guns before they become gang shooters like Rodnell did.
"What we know in broad speak is that the system isn't working. And Rodnell talks about it. He never felt any confidence and never had much affirmation of self worth other than what he got from the gang," she said.
"He was a little guy looking for a community to belong to. He looked up to people because he was part of something bigger that he didn't even understand. … We need to set up a new network of families and supports for them through the court."
There's a lot of potential options.
During our chat, Justice Burke rattled off a few: work-training programs, special anger management schools as an alternative to juvenile detention, and access to programs offering socialization skills and a sense of belonging they might otherwise only find with gangs.
Better monitoring of the juvenile probation system also could make a difference in keeping kids from becoming repeat offenders, too.
"If a child is allowed to go home they should have to show up to school every day, report to a center where they learn skills and do public service so they don't have time on their hands," Burke said.
"I don't think there's one solution, but a number of things can be part of a larger solution. Start with some programs that seem obvious. If we set up a community for these kids and follow through on it, it might replace what they didn't have all through his life. We need to replace what they lack and I bet you see growing success."
The Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, which counts Burke and Chief Justice Rita Garman as members, talks about the trouble with punishing kids carrying guns according to the state law that requires juvenile judges to give kids the “least restrictive sentences,” but isn’t empowered to make any changes.
Real change must start by assessing the problem, Burke said.
"Statistics drives change. Someone has to capture statistics about who goes into the system and what happens to them — and we have all that information in the courts and from police," she said.
"It's something we need to do. … Someone needs to take the lead and do it," she said. "We have to bite the bullet and build models and we need real professionals to help develop that."
Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez both know kids carrying guns is a serious public safety issue in Chicago and across the country, but neither of them have a clear answer to addressing it.
"Funds and grants have dried up. And due to budget cuts, we don't have all the programs that we used to have," Alvarez said. "Some programs we used to put a kid in don't even exist anymore. So do we lock up every kid caught with a gun? I don't think so."
Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said the biggest problem facing juvenile justice reform isn’t finding cash for programs.
"Budgeting is the easy part," she said. "Gun violence costs the city and county a huge amount every month. If new strategies were put in place they would pay for themselves many times over.
“The big issue is a lack of political will. Everyone cares about kids being killed, but no one wants to go out on a limb to do something different.”
Ander suggested trying programs used in other states, specifically Delaware, where juvenile justice punishments focus on providing intensive services aimed at changing behavior and include incarceration only in a “boarding school” atmosphere rather than typical juvenile detention.
"The gun violence problem in Chicago should be our highest priority for adults and juveniles," she said. "Get that one right and it will handle the rest. … Let's not have it be 'not a real crime' if all a kid did is carry a gun. Let's recognize the system has failed, intervene and get on a different path."