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Don’t play politics: Close underused youth prisons

The Illinois Youth Center Joliet.  |  Sun-Times Medifile photo

The Illinois Youth Center in Joliet. | Sun-Times Media file photo

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Updated: November 29, 2012 6:34AM

Voters are rightly disinclined to blame state workers for Illinois’ fiscal woes. Still, it’s hard to imagine the economic moment when taxpayers would be sympathetic to a union that opposes moving about 75 workers out of a southern Illinois prison that has guards but no inmates.

Gov. Pat Quinn started closure proceedings for the facility in Murphysboro well over a year ago now. The prison has not held a single youth for months.

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

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

Meanwhile, their fearmongering has been aided by several state legislators, including one who likened Joliet’s function to that of Tamms (an adult supermax prison often called a human-rights atrocity).

Inexplicably, that legislator seems to think that’s a reason to keep an underused youth prison open, 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 a 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, 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 youths. Harvard University is cheaper.

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

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

† Quinn proposed that $57 million in savings from adult and juvenile prison closures would fund essential programs for abused and neglected children. Savings would also fund public safety-enhancing community services for youths in conflict with the law.

† Legislators continued to fund the two youth prisons despite the closure plan and 55 percent occupancy. Meanwhile, some potential savings have been lost because closures have been delayed by a union lawsuit over bargaining details.

Politicians quietly acknowledge that the fuss over closing two youth prisons in system that’s 45 percent empty during a budget crisis is “really about” the coming pension fight.

Taxpayers should remind legislators that decisions over which youth programs to fund should be “really about” youths’ needs, safety and common sense, not pet adult issues like pork, pensions and paychecks.

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

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