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Thursday, April 26, 2012 03:31 pm

Plenty of room at the inn

Sangamon County’s juvenile detention center goes unused

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Sangamon County is considering options for its juvenile detention center that remains largely empty a dozen years after it opened.

Possibilities include closing the center or remodeling space so that adult inmates can share the building that opened in 2000 at a cost of $13.7 million.

“Everything is on the table,” said Mike Torchia, director of the county’s court services department that oversees the detention center.

The center, which can house as many as 58 detainees, has never been close to full. The county shut down a 24-bed wing in 2009, leaving one 24-bed wing to hold kids between 10 and 21, with the older detainees subject to detention if they committed an offense while 17 or younger. The average daily population is 17. The center employs 30 people, including five managers, Torchia said, and seven beds are reserved for Macon County, which contracts for detention services.

Torchia says the wing that remains open reaches capacity once or twice a year. On some days, he said, as few as six kids are in custody. At any given time, 175 children are under court supervision in Sangamon County, he said. But authorities handle most kids with electronic monitoring or some other means short of locking them up.

“We try to use detention as a last resort,” Torchia said.

The county has retained Maximus, a consulting firm, to recommend options. State law allows adults and juveniles to be held in the same facility so long as they are out of sight and sound of each other, and that’s an option worth considering, says Jack Campbell, chief deputy of the Sangamon County sheriff’s office.

“We’re always looking for space,” Campbell said. “If they could somehow retrofit that jail and abide by all the laws, we would like the room.”

The center was built with the help of a $1.7 million federal grant. It replaced a crumbling lockup that had been built over a defunct landfill that was subsiding, which caused structural problems. Elizabeth Clarke, president of Juvenile Justice Initiatives, a Chicago-area advocacy group, said that the federal government helped build new facilities throughout the state about the same time that Sangamon County received federal money.

“Every county with a detention center, other than Cook County, expanded at that point,” Clarke said.

But a nationwide move away from incarcerating juveniles has resulted in closures both inside and outside Illinois, Clarke said, with 50 detention centers in 18 states shutting down since 2007, with no corresponding increase in crime. In Illinois, she said, the population of juveniles locked up by the state has gone from more than 2,000 to fewer than 1,050 during the past decade. In Cook County, a juvenile detention center with 500 beds has gone from 800 detainees to fewer than 300, she said.

Potential cost savings are enormous.

In Sangamon County, taxpayers have paid as much as $823,424 in a single year to Pacific Management, Inc., for building management alone at the detention center under a contract signed in 1999. The contract called for the county to pay as much as $70,615 per month to the company during the first five years of operation. The county continues to pay Pacific Management to mow grass, plow snow, perform janitorial services and otherwise manage the building, but at a dramatically lower rate than specified by the contract signed in 1999. Last year, the tab came to $95,463, and maintenance reserve funds built up during the first five years of operations were sufficient to pay all maintenance costs in 2006 and 2007.

County administrator Brian McFadden said the county is renegotiating the deal with Pacific Management, and Maximus is also reviewing the contract to see if the terms are favorable for the county. He said he expects a draft report on the detention center from the consultant within a month.

“The facility doesn’t match the need right now,” McFadden said. “That’s why we’re looking at our options.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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