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Kollmann: Lawmakers should back plan to close two youth prisons

The Illinois Youth Center Joliet Ill. |  File photo

The Illinois Youth Center in Joliet, Ill. | File photo

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Updated: December 29, 2012 6:29AM



Voters are rightly disinclined to blame state workers for Illinois’ fiscal woes.

Still, it’s hard to imagine an economic moment when taxpayers would be sympathetic to a union that opposes moving about 75 workers out of a youth prison in southern Illinois that has guards but no inmates.

Gov. Pat Quinn started closure proceedings for the prison in Murphysboro more than a year ago. It has not held a single inmate for months.

The situation is no less absurd at the youth prison in Joliet, which is an adult-modeled facility painfully out of step with the rehabilitative purpose of the juvenile justice system.

Union leaders claim that workers at other youth prisons could be less safe if Joliet is closed — a shameless scare tactic that refuses to acknowledge the highly secure environment at the prisons that will house youths transferred from Joliet.

Meanwhile, the unions’ fearmongering has been aided by several state legislators, including one who likened Joliet’s function to that of the state prison at Tamms (an adult prison with the highest security level and one often called a human rights atrocity).

Inexplicably, the legislator seems to think that’s a reason to keep open Joliet’s underused youth prison, not close it.

In news cycles filled with short, sound-bite reports, Quinn’s proposals to close two adult and two juvenile prisons often are lumped together as a package deal, with the focus only on the larger and overcrowded adult prison system.

But just as youths are different from adults, so are the reasons for closing adult and juvenile prisons.

Legislators play political games over closures, but Illinois voters in both parties tend to understand the fiscal and moral obligation to shut empty juvenile prisons when they see the facts:

Illinois’ youth prison system, built for 1,754 youths, currently houses only 970.

Operating all eight youth prisons costs taxpayers more than $85,000 per youth per year. Costs are driven by monitoring and repairing empty space, not quality program and service delivery to the youths.

Quinn proposes closing the two youth prisons for a combined annual savings of $27.5 million.

Consolidation will not harm public safety. Other states have recently closed a total of more than 50 youth prisons without a corresponding spike in juvenile crime.

Under Quinn’s proposal, the $57 million in savings from adult and juvenile prison closings would fund essential programs for abused and neglected children. Savings would also pay for public, safety-enhancing community services for youth in conflict with the law.

Legislators continued to fund the two youth prisons despite the closings plan and their having only 55 percent occupancy. Meanwhile, potential savings have been lost because the closings have been delayed by a union lawsuit over bargaining details.

Politicians quietly acknowledge that the fuss over closing the two youth prisons that have such low populations during a budget crisis is really about the coming battle over the state’s pension crisis.

Taxpayers should remind legislators that decisions over which youth programs to fund should be really about youth needs, safety and common sense — not pet adult issues such as political pork, pensions and paychecks.

Stephanie Kollmann is a clinical fellow at the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law.



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