05/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Plug The Budget Gap With Juvenile Justice Reform

Newly minted Gov. Pat Quinn and all the rest of us in Illinois have a big budget hole to fill. Various "experts" estimate the budget gap at $9 billion, $11 billion and $12.5 billion. Take your pick.

A citizens' group has been appointed to find places to cut the budget. One of the first places they should look is the Department of Corrections, which spends a shocking $1.4 billion each year to lock up 45,000 people. Approximately 20 percent of those inmates stay for about two months or less in a state prison, and 40 percent of the inmate population are there because they were convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

Eventually, all but a handful of the 45,000 inmates are sent back to their home communities. And when they do get out of prison, they are stigmatized by their record, are unlikely to find legal employment and, if present trends continue, 50 percent will be back in prison in less than three years.

Gov. Quinn recently signed a bill making permanent a pilot program for youth in the juvenile justice system. Although that program -- Redeploy Illinois -- was created as a reform of the juvenile system, it really is a model for changing the way Illinois spends it money on lawbreakers of all ages. It has the potential to save the state a lot of money and keep youths or adults out of further trouble with the law.

Redeploy Illinois is designed to reverse the perverse incentives that now govern the prison systems. Fifteen-year-old Wayne shows up for the fifth time in front of a county judge for missing curfew, running away and truancy (which are only crimes because he is under 18). The judge decides to send Wayne to prison to teach him a lesson or maybe to get him away from the community or possibly to find some counseling, which is not available in his county. Wayne's incarceration for a year costs the judge's county nothing; it costs the state over $75,000. Wayne leaves town for a while, comes back and not only thinks of himself as a criminal, but also has just spent a year associating with some pretty bad prisoners who have access to drugs, guns and gangs.

Redeploy Illinois successfully changed financial incentives and the behaviors in the initial four pilot sites. Counties applied for money to treat youth in their own communities (to create the counseling services Wayne needed) and, in exchange for getting the money, the counties agreed to reduce by 25 percent the number of youth they sent to state prisons or pay a fine.

After three years, the pilots surpassed the targets, reducing the number of juveniles sent to prison from those counties by over 50 percent and posting an $18 million "cost avoidance" saving for the state, according to the annual report.

In the first three years, the pilot sites have diverted 400 youths from the state juvenile prisons, which typically house 1,400. St. Clair County, across the river from St. Louis, in one year reduced the number of youth sent to state facilities from 87 to 11 and without an increase in local crime.

Unfortunately, the success of Redeploy Illinois has not saved the state any money. That $18 million is a "cost avoidance" because no prison beds have been closed since the inception of Redeploy.

Illinois elected leaders have not shown the will to close adult or juvenile prisons -- or even prison wings -- as evidenced by three recent attempts to do so. A true perverse economic impact of prisons is that communities see the prisons as providing needed jobs. Where there isn't a university or a community college, a prison is a nice source of state-paid jobs.

The state employees' unions are strong and not interested in closing any beds, reducing payrolls or their current massive overtime pay. And many policy-makers are not eager to counter these forces, to appear "soft on crime" or to oppose what looks like economic development to some.

Illinois has eight juvenile prisons and 28 adult facilities, housing six times the number of people than in 1970. The United States leads the world in the number of people we lock up. New York and California are closing prisons, changing their drug laws and providing treatment, a far less expensive way to change behaviors and control crime.

What forces are large enough to actually make it possible to change the financial incentives and to create political will to alter the juvenile system further and start genuine change in the adult prison system?

Redeploy Illinois passed both houses of the General Assembly unanimously and is a model for how to change the system. Its development and expansion are supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, whose board and staff set out six years ago to reform the juvenile justice in the United States, with Illinois as one of the initial four sites. The foundation has taken a measured and thoughtful approach to policy and systems' change, supporting high level research as well as local advocacy groups and government entities which are devising new ways to keep communities safe and redesign punitive and expensive juvenile systems.

The landmark signing of the bill which makes Redeploy Illinois available statewide could herald a new day. Local jobs can be developed for treating youth in their communities, not in prisons. Perhaps the governor's FY 2010 budget initiative to close a downstate juvenile prison, which now costs taxpayers about $200,000 a bed, will be successful.

The same model for adult prisons could be instituted by making money available to counties for more drug treatment, mental health services and electronic home monitoring in exchange for reduced commitments to the state prisons. Early treatment for offenders' underlying drug or mental health issues frequently results in better outcomes than incarceration anyway. And the current overcrowding in adult prisons could be eliminated and some prisons or prison wings closed, perhaps.

Redeploy Illinois is a small step, but it offers a serious and just alternative to a big deficit and an enormous social problem.