- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration announced Friday it will close the youth correctional facility in Kewanee, news that delighted a civil rights group but distressed employees who worried about alternative housing for maximum-security offenders.

Illinois Juvenile Justice Director Candice Jones said the move would save money, offer young offenders rehabilitation in less-restrictive settings and improve community safety.

“Youth do best when we work with them in the most appropriate, least-restrictive setting,” Jones said in a statement. “That means partnering with proven, effective nonprofits to provide resources and work with youth in the communities. It also means that secure custody in state facilities should be reserved for only the highest-risk youth.”

Department spokesman Michael Theodore said Kewanee, which opened in 2001, would be shuttered July 1. The plan must be reviewed by the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, which will likely conduct public hearings, but a decision by the commission is non-binding.

Officials expect operating costs to be $19.7 million this year, Theodore said. If it closes on schedule, a net savings of $14.2 million would be used to improve community-based programming and to upgrade existing facilities to make room for transfers.

The announcement pleased the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it’s in keeping with a reassessment of youth detention required by a 2012 lawsuit it won.

“We hope that this is just the first announcement regarding the closing of a youth detention facility, and that we can move to a day when Illinois detains fewer juveniles in far-flung parts of the state,” ACLU staff counsel Lindsay Miller said in a statement.

But the union that represents 189 of 203 Kewanee staff members said Jones and other administrators “blind-sided” staff with the announcement during the facility’s 6 a.m. roll call.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the state council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, voiced concern about what would happen to the maximum-security offenders who were transferred to Kewanee - requiring renovation - when a youth detention center in Joliet was closed in 2013. He noted Kewanee also has a treatment program for sex offenders.

“It’s particularly hypocritical for the department to claim in its statement today that it wants facilities dedicated for special purposes such as maximum-security inmates only when it had such a facility, Joliet, closed it and sent that population to Kewanee over the objection of employees, advocates and our union,” Lindall said.

Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat and co-chairman of the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, said the proposal is an “opportunity” to “stop the warehousing of folks” and get them needed mental health treatment and programs to redirect their lives while they’re serving their time.

Theodore said the department is “assessing where youth from Kewanee will be relocated based on their risks and treatment needs.”

The closure would leave youth centers in Chicago, Harrisburg, Grafton, St. Charles and Warrenville. Jones said the state houses 436 young offenders and after Kewanee is closed, the system would have 683 beds.

“That is enough capacity to comply with best practices, and account for seasonal fluctuations in the number of youth confined,” Jones said.

Theodore said remaining facilities are “capable of housing maximum-security youth without modifications.”

The Warrenville facility has been reserved for girls since 1999. But there are only 12 in the entire system, Theodore said, so officials will revert to a co-ed setup, and will begin transferring minimum-security males to Warrenville in the coming weeks.

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Online: http://www.illinois.gov/idjj/

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Contact Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/john-oconnor

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