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Advocates applaud plan to close Ill. youth centers

CHICAGO — Illinois houses juvenile offenders in eight detention centers across the state, including one in downstate Murphysboro that is only a third full, has little outdoor recreation space and costs $84,000 a year per youth to operate. It has nearly 100 staffers for its 53 inmates.

Gov. Pat Quinn's proposal to close that Murphysboro detention center and another in Joliet is winning the praise of judicial reform advocates, who say the move will not only save the state money but allow young offenders to stay home and receive treatment. Research, they say, shows that would be more effective at reducing recidivism without compromising public safety.

On the other side are local officials and the union representing workers at the facilities, who say the centers provide needed services to troubled youth and valuable jobs to struggling communities.

Quinn, whose aides say he favors moving completely away from such juvenile detention, is mirroring a national trend toward shifting young offenders out of facilities and keeping them home for treatment and services that providers say have been proven to keep them out of trouble by addressing underlying problems such as mental illness, substance abuse and educational setbacks.

More than 50 juvenile facilities in 17 states and the District of Columbia closed between 2007 and 2011, according to a report last fall from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. New York state closed 14 facilities, while Texas closed nine.

"We've been throwing good money after bad outcomes here," said Rick Velasquez, executive director of Youth Outreach Services, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides counseling and other services. "We over-rely on detention for kids when it's totally unnecessary."

Eventually, Quinn would want to see Illinois' juvenile facilities become extinct, his aides say.

"Ideally, we'd like to reach a point where juvenile facilities are no longer necessary and all of our youth receive the supports and services necessary to live healthy, productive lives in the community," said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.

The state's eight juvenile centers house fewer than 1,100 young people at an average cost of about $85,000 a year per youth. Advocates say they can provide better results for less than $12,000 a year with programs including intensive counseling for the kids and their families.

Illinois created the Department of Juvenile Justice in 2006 with the goal of moving away from punishment and toward treatment for young people. Previously, the juvenile justice system was part of the adult corrections department. Closing the two facilities and investing in alternatives to detention is a step toward making good on that goal, officials said.

"These closures will help the Department of Juvenile Justice refocus its mission and resources from detention to prevention and diversion programs with proven track records of success," Anderson said. The DJJ spends 89 percent of its budget on operating the eight facilities.

Quinn is targeting Joliet for closure because of its age — it opened in 1959 — and because it's the most like an adult prison, Anderson said. And it, like Murphysboro, is well below its capacity. Joliet can hold 344 youth and currently houses 243; Murphysboro can hold 156 and currently houses 53.

The juvenile justice department has a system-wide population of 1,075, down 118 people from a year ago and down 334 from five years ago, Anderson said. Their offenses range from non-violent property crimes to murder.

Those numbers will continue to decrease because of programs like Redeploy Illinois, a statewide initiative aimed at providing counseling, education assistance and other services in young peoples' home communities rather than sending them to facilities, said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition.

Currently, about half of the juveniles sent to Illinois facilities return within three years of their release. Recidivism rates have consistently been lower for Redeploy Illinois participants.

Closing the two facilities will save the state nearly $24 million a year, Anderson said. Staff and residents would be shifted to other facilities.

Among those against the closure is the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, which represents nearly 300 workers at the two facilities, said spokesman Anders Lindall. He maintains that the facilities' programs are working, and he questioned the wisdom of relocating youth further from their families.

"If we really believe in a rehabilitative model and investing in what we know works... we should not be closing these facilities," Lindall said. "We should not be laying off the dedicated staff who are giving their working lives to turning troubled kids around."

State Rep. Dave Luechtefeld, whose district includes the Murphysboro facility, said he worries staff members will have to relocate to other parts of the state.

Quinn proposed closing Murphysboro last fall, and state Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability voted 7-4 against closure, noting its economic impact on the community.

Luechtefeld noted that Murphysboro is among the newest facilities in the state. "I think they need to look at other ones that are much older (with) more run-down conditions," said Luechtefeld, R-Okawville.

But John Maki, executive director of prison watchdog group The John Howard Association, said Murphysboro doesn't have adequate outdoor space. In Joliet, an April 2011 report from the association described the majority of buildings as "disturbingly institutional," with housing units that are "drab and dingy and completely beige in color."

The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission backs the closures, though the panel isn't taking a position on which ones should go, said commission chair Judge George Timberlake, retired chief justice of the Second Circuit Court.

"We're paying for empty beds, and we shouldn't do that," Timberlake said. "We do understand from a fiscal standpoint it is just unsupportable to have that many facilities open."

Karen Hawkins can be followed at