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Article updated: 1/18/2013 7:22 AM

Watchdog: St. Charles youth prison ready for Joliet inmates

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The Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles will not only be ready to accommodate juvenile offenders currently housed in Joliet, but it would be a better choice to provide mental health services than the state's magnet facility, a watchdog group said Thursday.

The John Howard Association of Illinois is a nonpartisan criminal justice system watchdog. It issued a report last month criticizing the state of mental health services provided at the Illinois Youth Center in Kewanee, which is the magnet site for youth offenders needing the most intensive mental health services. The report said youths at the facility receive only about 30 minutes of individual therapy a week. And fewer than 10 percent of the youths have access to group therapy. Both problems are the result of inadequate staffing, the report said.

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"They essentially don't provide mental health treatment," John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, told the Daily Herald editorial board Thursday. "We see really no evidence that they are doing what they need to be doing to actually staff this facility and provide treatment."

Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice officials have said in response to the report that the state is attempting to fill mental health positions at Kewanee, but the location of the facility, about two hours west of Chicago, has proved to be an unattractive destination. Instead, the state is pursuing unspecified "other options" to provide mental health treatment.

Maki said St. Charles would be a better place to provide mental health services for youth offenders. It already provides more treatment at its location and is undergoing $5 million in infrastructure improvements in anticipation of receiving the Joliet youths. The Joliet youth center was one of the budget cut casualties imposed by Gov. Pat Quinn. The facility is set to close Feb. 22.

Union corrections officers at the St. Charles facility have been critical of the pending infusion of Joliet inmates. And even Maki's organization has bashed the St. Charles facility for having condemned buildings on the 126-acre campus as well as overall dirty conditions. The facility also had a problem with youth suicides a few years ago.

"They've gotten better," Maki said "And with more investment it could be a very beautiful facility. It's been neglected. I'd say the conditions are not what they should be, but they've significantly improved over the last couple years."

Maki said Joliet youths headed to St. Charles have an unfair reputation as being the most violent offenders in the juvenile system. Maki said the average daily population in the Joliet facility is "largely indistinguishable" from the youths already housed in St. Charles.

"The move is actually probably a good thing," Maki said. "It's going to become a more complicated facility. And in the age of limited resources, we're going to be able to consolidate those resources around St. Charles. We're going to watch and monitor the process."

Maki said the other youth center in the area, in Warrenville, houses only female offenders and has some of the best mental health care and rehabilitation programs in the juvenile justice system.

"The girls get more attention from the community, and they are generally seen as a more sympathetic case," Maki said.

A state juvenile justice spokeswoman could not be immediately reached for additional comment Thursday.

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