SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A bipartisan legislative oversight panel opposed Gov. Bruce Rauner’s plan to shutter the youth detention center in Kewanee Tuesday, amid hopes for reprieve, repurposing or at least a plan for disposing of the 15-year-old facility.
The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability’s 5-6 vote against closure is advisory, but lawmakers’ comments reflected uneasiness with the delicate topic of housing and treating youthful offenders as well as the state’s track record on mothballing obsolete sites.
Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly says the administration is exploring “alternative uses” including whether it might suit the Corrections Department.
The Republican governor’s announcement in February that he would close the state’s newest youth detention center — opened in 2001 — was hailed by civil rights advocates who for years have railed against incarcerating teenagers. And the population is declining.
“We have 1,000 beds in the system and 420 kids,” Department of Juvenile Justice Director Candice Jones told the commission. “I need to provide for those kids because we also have a resource problem in our state.”
Jones was referring to the multibillion-dollar budget deficit exacerbated by a budget standoff between Rauner and legislative Democrats — an impasse now entering its 11th month.
Jones said half of the state’s young offenders are from Cook County and detention facilities should be located near family, educational institutions, mental health services, and future job opportunities or skills training.
Peoria Republican Sen. Chuck Weaver and Democratic Rep. Mike Smiddy from Hillsdale urged keeping Kewanee open, saying as the newest youth site, it is the most efficient to operate, along with it being less costly to run per inmate than other facilities in Chicago, Harrisburg, Grafton, St. Charles and Warrenville.
Short of that, Weaver suggested the Department of Corrections appropriate the site for geriatric or chronically ill adult inmates who have life terms but are no longer a safety threat. Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said that idea has been bandied about in recent years.
“I hope you continue to push the department (Corrections) on this concept because it wouldn’t be hard to implement and we’d see savings from that immediately,” Syverson said.
Neither spokeswomen for Rauner or Corrections immediately responded to requests for comment.
Several commission members voted “no” for fear that a tally in favor would ensure shuttering Kewanee without solidifying plans to resurrect it for other state purposes. Others, such as Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, a Jacksonville Republican, said he’s wary of closure without a plan to dispose of the obsolete site after he saw the Jacksonville Developmental Center close in 2012 and remain vacant and deteriorating.
“I don’t see a plan in motion to do something with that facility,” Davidsmeyer said.