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Panel right to advise against closing prisons

The following editorial appeared in the The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Ill., on Thursday, May 3:

(MCT) — The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability got it about half right.

On Tuesday, the commission, which is an arm of the General Assembly and thereby made up of legislators, concluded that seven of eight state facilities should stay open — despite Gov. Pat Quinn’s stated goal to close them all to save about $89 million as one way of making a dent in the state’s massive budget deficit.

The commission said the women’s prison in Dwight and the maximum prison in Tamms should stay open, along with a developmental center in Jacksonville, mental health centers in Tinley Park and Rockford and a youth detention facility in Murphysboro. The panel, on a 7-3 vote, only supported closing an office in Skokie operated by the Department of Children and Family Services.

We have previously stated that it makes sense to close the state facilities on Quinn’s hit list — except the prisons.

It wasn’t a “not in our backyard” argument because the Dwight prison is in Central Illinois.
Rather, it was based on logic.

Illinois’ prison population is more than 48,000, exceeding its rated capacity of about 34,000. Regardless of how the Department of Corrections likes to spin the argument, prisons are overcrowded and the situation is getting worse — while the Quinn administration continues to delay establishing a new and effective early release program that would ease the tensions building inside prison walls.

DOC refers to “operational capacity” rather than rated capacity, but as we have previously pointed out, that involves such things as double-bunking cells or putting bunks in places not designed as living areas.

The bottom line is more must be done to reduce the inmate population before prisons are closed.

The same cannot necessarily be said of the other facilities the commission recommended stay open.

Regarding developmental centers, the national trend is away from large state-run institutions and toward more community-based, individualized care. As long as the state gives appropriate financial support for such programs, closing these centers is logical.

And, unlike adult prisons, closing some juvenile detention centers also makes sense because, generally, they are under capacity and research shows young offenders also are better served in community settings that are less costly to operate.

What weight Quinn gives to the commission’s report remains to be seen. On Tuesday, he hinted that it might not be much, repeating that “difficult decisions” must be made “to restore fiscal stability to Illinois.”

He’s right about that. But adding to the pressure at state prisons by closing Dwight and Tamms is not the answer at this time. But time is running out for the other facilities.

(c)2012 The Pantagraph  (Bloomington, Ill.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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