Op-ed by JJI Board Member Julie Biehl
By Julie Biehl June 8, 2012 7:42PM
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.
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.