Officials undecided on DuPage Youth Home plan
Updated: December 11, 2011 8:23AM
Representatives of the community that sends more juvenile offenders to the DuPage County Youth Home than any other say they’re not sure how they’ll weigh in Tuesday on the proposal to shutter the Wheaton facility and join forces with Kane County.
As the most populous municipality in DuPage, Naperville accounts for a significant segment of the teens detained at the Youth Center, which consistently operates well below its 90-detainee capacity. County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, whose plan to partner with the Kane County Juvenile Justice Center is up for a board vote Tuesday, reported that just 15 detainees were housed at the DuPage facility during the last week of September.
Cronin is pressing for consideration of options that don’t involve incarceration, citing a study released earlier this year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation titled “No Place for Kids,” which found little evidence of rehabilitative benefit in most cases where teens are kept locked up.
The report cited an agreement made in the Detroit area a decade ago that left responsibility for all committed youth with the county, but provided state reimbursement for the half of the cost of supervision and community programming tailored to each offender’s circumstances.
“Nearly half of the youth assigned to these care management organizations remained in their own homes in 2009, and most of the remaining youth were housed in low- or moderate-security group homes or residential treatment centers,” the report says.
“Only 18 youth per day were held in state (youth detention centers) in 2009 — down from 597 per day in 1999.”
Cronin has pointed out repeatedly that the $400 daily expense of housing a youth offender is more than three times the cost of a day’s tuition at the University of Illinois. He projects the consolidation plan would save DuPage taxpayers $1 million annually.
Pros and cons
District 5 representatives Jim Healy, Tony Michelassi and John Zediker have perspectives on the issue, though none made a firm commitment when asked Wednesday how they plan to vote.
“I’d always heard that DuPage County’s Youth Home was one of the best in the country, prior to the budget issues,” said Michelassi, noting that many other youth homes across the country have turned to the Wheaton facility’s operators for advice and guidance. “That’s not the kind of thing that you really want to give up when you’re a policy maker.”
Still, he’s holding off on which proposal he’ll support until he has visited the center in St. Charles, something he plans to do before the vote.
Naperville’s Healy sees advantages to both proposals.
“It’s very hard to say exactly what is the best thing to do. At one point you say to yourself, ‘You know, I think we can do it better if we do it here,’” he said, stressing that at this point he doesn’t find fault with Kane County’s program.
One of the primary forces driving the discussion is cost. Most county officials have expressed frustration with the loss of monetary support that has resulted from the state’s budget crisis. The proposed 2012 county budget provides a $400,000 interdepartmental transfer to make up for a shortfall in state funds, plus $1.9 million from property taxes, but the judge in charge of the home says more is needed.
Stephen J. Culliton, chief judge of the 18th Judicial Circuit Court, told the board last month that the Kane facility is “better, more thoroughly staffed than ours.” If the Wheaton home is to remain open, he warned, a minimum of $230,000 more is critically needed every year to ensure the safety of the youth and staff.
“The $400,000 should not be considered,” Culliton said. “We cannot operate at that level.”
Home base support
County Board member Jim Zay, who wants to keep the Wheaton home open, notes that it was just built a dozen years ago and pointed out that State’s Attorney Bob Berlin, the public defender’s office and others have argued against the move.
“These are the people that work in the juvenile justice system,” Zay said.
He also thinks the additional 12 miles needed to reach the Kane County home could take officers away from routine patrol duties too much of the time and translate to less frequent visitors for the detainees.
It shouldn’t be out of the question, he said, to include the extra funds in the county’s $435 million spending plan for next year.
“One of the main responsibilities for county government is public safety,” Zay said. “I would think the troubled youth in our county deserve some spending.”
While the annual savings would be a plus, Naperville board member Zediker said that’s only part of the picture.
“Obviously there’s the cost savings, but more important than that is that this could be a great example of how well shared services can work,” said Zediker, who is leaning toward supporting Cronin’s proposal but has yet to finalize his decision.
Some opponents of the plan have aired concern about teens being placed in a residential setting who have widely different backgrounds and issues, although both facilities take steps to separate offenders whose crimes are relatively minor from the more violent detainees.
According to some who are against Cronin’s proposal, divergent philosophies at the two institutions suggest the local offenders might be better off remaining in Wheaton. Kane County conducts strip searches and uses an observation-based, color-coded points system for behavior management that penalizes infractions with bedtimes as early as 6 p.m. In DuPage, there is no strip searching, behavior is guided in a more interactive way and inappropriate choices bring a time out.
Board member Bob Larsen, a supporter of the partnership, is certain the larger differences can be readily addressed through negotiations with the Kane center’s administrators.
“They have at this point expressed a tremendous amount of flexibility,” he said.
Healy speculated that there could be a connection between the procedural differences and the average time teens spend in each facility. At 19 1/2 days before the cases are adjudicated, the Kane facility’s average stay is 50 percent longer than that at the Wheaton home.
“If you have a kid for five days or six days or 10 days, is it because you’re focusing on positive reinforcement, rather than going after negative behavior?” Healy said.