Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Some say state doesn't need all of its juvenile centers

By Jamey Dunn

Juvenile justice advocates say that if Gov. Pat Quinn plans to close state facilities, he should consider shuttering some of the state’s juvenile prisons, which they say are far below capacity.

“The numbers do not justify running eight separate facilities for what is essentially [the population of] a high school,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative. According to an analysis of state records by the Juvenile Justice Initiative the average daily population for such youth institutions in the state was 1,113 in fiscal year 2011, down from 1,603 in fiscal year 2005 and 1,192 in fiscal year 2011. The same analysis estimates operation costs for the facilities as $92,257 per bed for fiscal year 2011.

Quinn proposed closing the Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro as part of a plan to shut down seven state facilities and lay off more than 1,900 in state employees. Quinn said that the estimated $54.8 million in savings the plan would produce are needed to fund “core” services through the rest of the fiscal year. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that Murphysboro is the one to close,” Clarke said. She said the state needs conduct a review of all the facilities to determine which would make sense to shut down. Clarke said other states, such as California, Texas, Ohio and New York are doing just that. “Eventually, states around the country have decided that this isn’t sustainable,” she said. “This really is a time for the state to take a comprehensive look at the juvenile detention system and shift those resources, as other states are doing, into community based alternatives. … They’re shifting some of the savings to local communities to come up with their own approach that is based on local values.”

Clarke said some money from the closures would need to be filtered into community based alternatives to deal with youth offenders, but she said such closures would result in savings for the state. “There’s no value added by spending $90,000 a year on a kid versus $4,000 to $5,000 to $6,000 [needed for community programs].”Clarke said the argument really comes down to what gives the most bang for the buck. “The outcomes [of incarceration] are terrible. We know that half the kids will be back in juvenile prisons in three years.” Advocates say that the public perception that all kids who are incarcerated are violent offenders is inaccurate. They say multiple parole violations often cause judges to throw up their hands and send kids away. “A series of probation violations, no matter how frustrating, is not the kind of violent act that alone could arguably justify this kind of intense incarceration and this kind of expense,” Clarke said.

However, union officials say the proposed closures are unnecessary and would hurt those in need of services, as well as harming the communities where they are located. Anders Lindall, spokesperson for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said state agencies may not have been given enough authority to spend to get them though the fiscal year, but that is different from the state just not having the money. “It’s not a matter of agencies running out of money, and it’s not a matter of anything looming imminently.” He said lawmakers could pass supplemental appropriations, giving agencies the power to spend more and fully fund their work through Fiscal Year 2012. “It is very common for such a supplemental appropriations to be passed. It’s a very run-of-the mill budget management tool, and it can save these jobs and services.”

Lindall said advocates who are rallying around the potential closure of state facilities — such as some from the community that supports developmentally disabled residents — are “extremists” jumping at a chance to fulfill long held political goals. “It’s really unfortunate that a special interest can try to use a budget crisis for their ideological ends,” he said. He said many so-called community care facilities and programs are overwhelmed, pay low wages to workers, see high workforce turnover rates and simply cannot meet the virtually round-the-clock needs of some individuals currently in state institutions. Lindall said of Quinn’s plan: “It poses a dire threat to services for some of the most vulnerable people in Illinois, individuals with profound mental health crises, and the safety of the state’s prisons, in addition to 2,000 jobs.”

Clarke acknowledged that many communities do not want to give up the jobs that state institutions bring. She said expanded community programs will create jobs, and some facilities should be retrofitted and repurposed. The John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, suggests transferring the Murphysboro facility to the Department of Corrections as a means to ease overcrowding of adult prisons.

Clarke said ultimately, economic concerns are not a good reason to keep youth prisons — which she said are wasting tax dollars on inefficient treatment methods — in business. “Funding for juvenile justice is a limited amount of money, and we want to use it in the best way possible,” Clarke said. “Your jobs should not be built on the back of human misery. That should not be our job development plan.”

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