The Latest: Legislator says Kewanee plan is 'opportunity'

The youth correctional center in Kewanee, Ill., is seen on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. (Mike Berry/Star Courier via AP)

SPRINGFIELD — Efforts to keep open a juvenile detention facility in northwestern Illinois may have gotten a boost Tuesday from a legislative panel.

The General Assembly’s bipartisan, bicameral Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability voted against recommending the closure of the Illinois Youth Center at Kewanee. However, the 5-6 vote isn’t binding on the Department of Juvenile Justice, which operates the 354-bed medium-security facility.   

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration is seeking to close the facility as part of an effort to shift to more community-based programs for juvenile offenders.

Supporters argue that Kewanee should be kept open because it’s the newest and, at full capacity, most cost-effective of the state’s six juvenile detention centers. If the Department of Juvenile Justice doesn’t maintain the facility, they would like to see it repurposed as a Department of Corrections facility, possibly one dedicated to caring for older inmates near the end of their lives.

“We need to continue to work with (the Department of Juvenile Justice) and (the Department of Corrections) to make sure we have a solution,” said Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, whose district doesn’t include the facility but is nearby.

Sen. Chuck Weaver, R-Peoria, whose district does include Kewanee, is a proponent of shifting the facility to the Department of Corrections. But he said he believes it should be kept open until that transition can be made.

“You have all too often seen facilities that shut down, the energy goes away, and they sit there for years with nothing happening to them,” Weaver said. “We think that is the worst possible thing that could be happening in this area.”

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly wrote in an email that the governor’s administration “is doing its due diligence to explore the feasibility of alternative uses for the Kewanee facility,” including asking Corrections to review whether the facility meets any of its needs.

As for the future of Kewanee, the “exploration is incomplete and any speculation at this time would be premature,” Kelly said.

Candice Jones, director of the Department of Juvenile Justice testified Tuesday that the young people in the department’s custody would be better served in facilities closer to their homes and families. The 18 counties surrounding Kewanee on average account for about 10 percent of the department’s overall population, which right now is 420.

Closing Kewanee would allow the department to make better use of the money it currently devotes to paying the nearly 240 employees at the facility.

“I cannot unlock those resources because we’d rather pay them in salaries,” Jones said. “We should close this prison.”

Among those supporting the proposed closure are prison watchdog the John Howard Association of Illinois and advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children.

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