By Elizabeth Clarke
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to close some state facilities to address budget shortfalls will put pressure on legislators to find new money to avoid the cuts, but one of the cuts — the closing of a juvenile prison — should be embraced by legislators as cost effective and in the best interests of our youth and safe communities.
Obviously, it’s important that state employees be able to transfer to other facilities or receive help finding other employment, and some of the facilities, like the Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro, could be put to other uses either by state government or others in the community.
But because the juvenile prison population is rapidly decreasing and per bed costs rapidly escalating, closing a juvenile facility makes sense. Illinois now has the opportunity to join a host of states ranging from California to Texas to New York that are rapidly shifting reliance from expensive — and ineffective — juvenile prisons to more effective community treatment.
In stark contrast to Gov. Quinn’s proposed closing of an adult prison in an already overcrowded adult prison system, the state’s juvenile prisons are far under capacity and an inefficient drain on the state treasury.
Illinois currently runs eight separate far-flung juvenile facilities to house an average of fewer than 1,200 youth. These eight facilities are costly. The average annual cost per bed has rapidly risen from $70,915 five years ago to an estimate of more than $90,000 this year. The per-bed cost at the Murphysboro youth prison, which the governor plans to close, are far above average and climbed to $142,342 per bed in FY ’10. Operation of each facility entails significant administrative costs, as does collective oversight and management of the eight separate facilities.
If each of the eight facilities ran quality programming with successful results, there might be justification for continuing their operation. The facts, however, are dismally opposite. Reports document a juvenile prison system that is ineffective, with more than half the youth returning to juvenile prisons within three years. Most facilities struggle to maintain minimal educational programming, let alone adequate mental health treatment, recreation or vocational classes.
The national wave of juvenile prison closures reflects an ever-growing body of research finding that local services are better at keeping youth from reoffending. Thus, many states, including Texas and Ohio, are reinvesting some of the savings from prison closures into community alternatives.
Illinois has a nationally-acclaimed reinvestment program — Redeploy Illinois — that has successfully decreased juvenile prison commitments across the state. Instead of closing just one juvenile prison, the governor and General Assembly should downsize the juvenile prison system further and shift some of the savings to community programs, like Redeploy Illinois, that hold troubled youth accountable for their actions, help change the direction of their lives and make our communities safer.
Elizabeth Clarke is president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a nonprofit juvenile justice advocacy organization with offices in Springfield and Evanston, Ill.
From the Jan. 25-31, 2012, issue