Lots of Questions Still Need Answers in Youth Prison Merger | WBEZ
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Lots of Questions Still Need Answers in Youth Prison Merger

This afternoon Illinois lawmakers will hold a hearing on the budget for youth prisons. These are the facilities where kids are sent when they get into deep trouble with the law. Governor Pat Quinn wants to merge the Department of Juvenile Justice with a much larger agency, the Department of Children and Family Services. It's a move that at this point has brought about more questions than answers.

SERIES: Inside and Out, our look at the juvenile justice system in Illinois

Really, no one is happy with the way the Department of Juvenile Justice is working. Not its employees, not the advocates who're supposed to look out for the imprisoned kids, not the department director, Kurt Friedenauer.

FRIEDENAUER: I will tell you that progress is slow. Changing the culture is slow.

Friedenauer has led the department since it was separated - partially, at least - from the adult prison system just four years ago. The idea at the time: move away from a hard core corrections model for kids to a more treatment focused one. There are differing claims of why this new model isn't a reality, ut - bottom line - isn't. And about half the kids end up back in prison after their release. That's a public safety concern, and bad news for taxpayers.

In a surprise move, Governor Quinn's budget proposed merging the youth prisons with the Department of Children and Family Services, the state's child welfare agency. Friedenauer testified about this at House budget hearing last month.

FRIEDENAUER: I believe the intended merger of the Department of Juvenile Justice into DCFS provides great opportunities for the young people who are under the custody of the state within the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Part of that, Friedenauer says, is DCFS could help his department get more money from the federal government, something it's had trouble doing on its own.

KAY: Now that the agency is just barely up and running...

Jason Kay is with AFSCME, the union that represents workers in the youth prisons, workers whose jobs could change dramatically with a merger.
 
KAY: Some who said just three years ago, 'We need a stand-alone agency,' are saying, 'Let's put it in DCFS.' And we are going to - frankly - waste more time rearranging the deck chairs while the kids we should be working with are sinking.

The union, Kay told lawmakers, opposes the merger idea, and not just because of its impact on the youth prisons, but also because of its impact on DCFS.

KAY: It was not much more than decade ago that DCFS was a seriously troubled agency, hauled into court and the target of media exposes. It has taken years of hard work to bring a measure of stability and effectiveness to the agency. This merger, we fear, could place that in jeopardy.

MCEWEN: I don't see it as distracting from the overall work of DCFS.

Erwin McEwen is director of DCFS.

MCEWEN: This would be another specific set of kids, with another specific set of needs that come with a set of resources already.

McEwen said last month he believed the transition was complicated, but wouldn't be strenuous. Regardless, that transition has been slowed a bit. Originally, the Quinn administration planned to issue an executive order that...

ambi: snap

...merged the two agencies. But when Quinn's executive order came out at the beginning of this month, it didn't order the merger. It ordered discussions on the merger - with state agencies, the union, advocate groups and lawmakers - to come up with legislation. According to Toni Irving from the governor's office, the revised process came about when the administration took stock of what was ahead.

IRVING: If you look at everything that it takes to actually make a merger, then it's sort of like, 'So what's the point of saying that it's merged on April 1st if the actual pieces won't be merged together until many months after that?'

A slower process is exactly what some lawmakers had asked for. Quinn's plan to merge the agencies caught them off-guard, and some saw his proposal as an example of what they described as Quinn's shoot-from-the-hip approach to policy making.

The delay was also welcomed by Betsy Clarke with the advocacy group Juvenile Justice Initiative, which hasn't yet endorsed the merger.

CLARKE: These are complex issues. I think a thoughtful, deliberative approach is always welcome.

Clarke says she's encouraged that the merger idea has brought renewed attention to the youth prison system. But she wants any change to be accompanied by a wholesale shift in focus to community-based programs.
 
CLARKE: The state should be - wherever this ends up - moving away from this incredibly costly $100-million investment in juvenile prisons where half these kids are back in prison within three years.

Clarke says she hopes the merger will bring about a very spirited debate, and that - she can likely count on. The governor's office says a big meeting is expected in the next week or so with all the stakeholders on hand.

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