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Editorial: Prison isn’t best option for nonviolent youths

Updated: November 16, 2011 3:35PM

A debate over closing the Illinois Youth Center in Downstate Murphysboro has focused on jobs and money and pitted Gov. Pat Quinn against legislators and organized labor.

But here’s something else to keep in mind: Research consistently shows that locking up nonviolent juvenile offenders fails to reform them, costs too much and makes us no safer.

Quinn wants to shutter Murphysboro as part of a larger money-saving plan to close a number of state facilities. But organized labor says its contract forbids both facility closures and layoffs.

An arbitrator has ruled that Quinn cannot close any state facilities until after June 30, 2012, but the state has appealed, leaving the closing of Murphysboro facility up in the air. Hearings on the issue are being held by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

Quinn — who says the General Assembly did not appropriate enough money to keep all the facilities running — might well lose this battle in the short term. But in the long term, the state still would be wise to replace youth incarceration whenever practical with more effective community-based programs.

A study released earlier this month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “No Place for Kids, the Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration,” concludes that youth incarceration, which costs states a yearly average of $88,000 per youth, is not paying off in public safety, rehabilitation or cost.

The Casey report is part of a growing body of research that indicates well-designed community-based services and supervision are more effective and more cost-efficient than incarceration. The study found that 18 states have closed more than 50 juvenile prisons since 2007 and that some of those states have shifted money to community-based care.

Illinois already has reduced the number of youths in juvenile detention. The state’s eight juvenile prisons are far under capacity, with 1,754 beds but fewer than 1,120 occupants. If Murphysboro were closed, the other youth prisons could easily absorb its 75 youths. Groups such as the Illinois PTA and the Juvenile Justice Initiative want more money channeled to programs that divert youthful offenders from juvenile prisons. Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, says the state is spending more than $100 million annually to confine youth, but less than $3 million on Redeploy Illinois, which since 2005 has diverted more than 1,600 youths ages 13 to 18 from prison.

The Casey study found that for youths who were incarcerated, up to 72 percent were convicted of a new offense within three years. But states that lowered juvenile confinement rates the most from 1997 to 2007 saw the greatest declines in juvenile arrests for violent crimes, it found. The study also found that in-home or community-based programs deliver equal or better results for a fraction of the cost.

Throughout the criminal justice system, we have suffered for decades from a lock-’em-up mentality that has failed to deliver the safety dividend we thought we would get.

It’s time to get smarter, for the sake of reforming young offenders — and for the sake of the taxpayer’s wallet.

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