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Editorial: Kids before prisons

Gov. PQuinn answers questions Chicago Sun-Times editorial board meeting Friday.  |  John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Gov. Pat Quinn answers questions at a Chicago Sun-Times editorial board meeting Friday. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:27AM

We can put our money into prisons, or we can put it into raising kids right so they don’t go to prison.

That’s an oversimplified view of the matter, we know. But it’s a philosophy worth following as the State of Illinois makes tough choices about where to spend too little money on too many needs.

Gov. Pat Quinn is getting blowback from state legislators for his plans to close some juvenile centers and prisons, including the notorious Tamms supermax, to free up about $57 million this fiscal year for essential child welfare services. The legislators insist their concerns are prison safety and overcrowding, but their biggest concern is the loss of good-paying prison jobs in their Downstate districts.

Quinn is firmly in the right. Reluctantly, he has had to slash nearly $90 million from the budget of the Department of Children and Family Services. That has forced the agency to make major cuts in programs that help keep struggling families intact, credited with helping to reduce dramatically the number of children in foster care.

Even if $57 million of that cut is restored, DCFS will remain underfunded, likely meaning more kids will have to be removed from their homes — and that’s plain scary. Study after study shows that, on the whole, kids do better when they live at home, with the help of good social services and supervision, rather than in foster homes.

It is unfair to Illinois taxpayers to keep open half-empty prisons largely to preserve jobs. And in the case of Tamms, it is folly to spend $64,805 per inmate a year when even the most dangerous of them can be held safely and more humanely, in keeping with our own best values, in less expensive prisons.

“I think children are far more important,” Quinn told reporters earlier this month, arguing for shifting the money to DCFS.

It’s hard to disagree.

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