SPRINGFIELD - A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is urging Gov. Pat Quinn to delay his proposed shakeup of the state's youth prison system.
In a March 26 letter signed by 33 members of the Illinois House, Quinn is asked to put the brakes on a plan to merge the Department of Juvenile Justice with the Department of Children and Family Services.
"We believe that more time is needed to examine the possible advantages and disadvantages to the youth in the care of these agencies," the lawmakers note.
In his budget proposal, Quinn announced a plan that would end the independence of the youth prison system in order to provide more services to troubled juveniles through DCFS.
The Department of Juvenile Justice was split off from the state's adult prison system in 2006 in an attempt to put more focus on education and rehabilitation, rather than incarceration.
But, because the agency still shares many bureaucratic functions with the adult corrections agency, officials said in early March they were hamstrung when it came to hiring and expanding needed programs.
State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, who signed the letter, said he's concerned the plan could result in a repeat of Quinn's botched early-release program, in which adult prisoners with violent records were let go from prison after serving just a short time behind bars.
In this case, Phelps said its not clear whether juvenile offenders would be reclassified and sent to halfway homes operated by DCFS.
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"We feel that these juveniles are there for a reason," Phelps said.
State Rep. Bob Flider, D-Mount Zion, also said he was concerned about repeating the mistakes of the adult early-release program.
"After the fiasco we just went through, I didn't think we'd want to rush into this," said Flider, who also signed the letter.
Others calling on Quinn to delay the merger were state Reps. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan; Dan Reitz, D-Steeleville; and Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg.
The department, with a budget of $132 million, oversees youth prisons in Chicago, Harrisburg, Joliet, Murphysboro, Kewanee, Grafton, St. Charles and Warrenville.
Phelps said he also is concerned the possible release of juvenile inmates could eventually result in the closure of one or more of the facilities.
"We can't have anybody down here losing their jobs," Phelps said. "I want to do everything I can to protect jobs in my district."
In the letter, the lawmakers say they hope to meet with the governor as soon as April 13.