An unidentified death row inmate watches television in his cell in the North Condemned Unit at Pontiac Correctional Institution, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2003, in Pontiac, Ill. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's mass commutation of the death row inmates sentences to life in prison means they'll trade private cells on death row for cellmates and the general population at other prisons around the state. The once-condemned men began moving out of death-row cells at Pontiac and Menard this week as prison officials complete the process started by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's historic clemency order. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Updated: July 11, 2012 10:13AM
Q. What happens when a state responds to non-violent juvenile delinquents with a justice system that holds them accountable for their actions and delivers family counseling, addiction treatment and other rehabilitative services?
A. Fewer juveniles waste their days in prison cells, and more of them stay in school and turn their lives around. More change the behaviors that once had them on a trajectory of a life of crime or even a life cut short by violence.
Q. What does that state — in this case, Illinois — do when it realizes its successful response to juvenile delinquency means it has nearly twice as many expensive prison cells as it has juvenile offenders to live in them?
A. If you’re Gov. Pat Quinn, you offer the fiscally responsible solution of consolidating the state’s eight-facility system into six youth prisons, cutting costs while using some of the administrative cost savings to allow teens to continue their rehabilitation after release, helping them to avoid a return to prison.
Yet a little more than a week ago, the General Assembly stubbornly responded by passing a budget keeping the lights on in all eight juvenile prisons. At the same time they threw good money after bad on youth prisons, legislators approved serious cuts to nearly every social service program and other cuts that will be felt by the disadvantaged throughout the state.
Legislators rejected a prime opportunity to make a fiscal decision that is also the right thing to do — an especially rare scenario this year. Our state’s bricks-and-mortar juvenile corrections system is unsustainable as currently structured. Illinois’ eight juvenile prisons have a bed capacity of 1,754 but house fewer than 990 youth, resulting in a per-capita cost of more than $90,000 a year. Fully half of these facilities should be shuttered if Illinois is to keep pace with current realignment reforms.
The Children and Family Justice Center has represented enough clients in state youth prisons to know that plenty of the 990 youth currently incarcerated need and deserve to be in less restrictive environments. Over-incarceration fosters institutional and community violence and consumes resources that might otherwise be available to rehabilitate youth already in their communities. It wastes millions of dollars statewide while doing absolutely nothing to prevent youth from entering the juvenile system in the first place.
In much of this closure and budget debate, the human toll of maintaining surplus youth prison space — even at the expense of programs that benefit children and families — has been sidelined, while backyard economics and partisan politics are cited as sufficient reason to keep them open. Viewed as a jobs and votes program, the juvenile corrections industry is more than ethically bankrupt; it is an economic loser.
Illinois must build on its juvenile justice reforms. Gov. Quinn should ignore the grandstanding in the General Assembly and move forward with the proposed closures of youth prisons in Murphysboro and Joliet.
We hope and expect that he will consolidate youth prisons as soon as possible and that these closures are simply his first of many steps in right-sizing the Illinois juvenile justice system.
Julie Biehl is director of the Children and Family Justice Center, Northwestern University School of Law.