Editorial: Money saved by closing prisons should help children
It’s pretty hard to argue with taking money from prisons and spending it to protect vulnerable kids.
Gov. Pat Quinn has clearly got this one right.
Last week, when he signed the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, he stood firm on his decision to close four under-used and expensive Illinois adult and juvenile prisons, a decision we have long supported as both fiscally sound and good policy.
Quinn stripped out $56 million that was to be spent on the prisons and urged the Legislature to redirect the money to the Department of Children and Family Services when they return to session in November.
DCFS is facing an $85 million budget cut, a 13 percent reduction in general revenue funds over last year, according to Voices for Illinois Children. That cut is significantly higher than other state agencies face and will result in the layoff of 375 workers, DCFS says. The agency, which is charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect, already is in violation of a federal consent decree because of its high case loads.
Because much of what DCFS does is mandated by law — most notably child-abuse investigations and foster-care family support — the cuts will affect the few areas where DCFS has discretion. These include the absolutely vital work of preventing abuse and neglect and social work to help keep families intact.
Lawmakers shouldn’t hesitate to redirect money saved from prison closures to DCFS, though it should in no way be a substitute for fiscal prudence at the agency. Contract negotiations are under way for workers at the heavily unionized agency and a modest raise — unlike the large raise allowed under the contract that just expired — will help ensure that any extra money goes toward protecting kids.
Several other agencies are worthy contenders for some of the prison money, most notably restoring major cuts to early childhood education. Many legislators will insist that any extra money should go toward paying old bills, a compelling argument in most cases. But pouring more into DCFS and preschool education are among the very best investments the state can make.