SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - A panel of Illinois lawmakers recommended against closing two prisons and a developmental center on Tuesday, a vivid illustration of how difficult it will be for officials to slash state spending this year.
Closing the facilities would save the state about $90 million at a time when the governor and legislative leaders want to cut billions. But the closures also would eliminate hundreds of jobs, deliver painful blows to downstate communities and, in the case of the developmental center, disrupt life for disabled people and their families.
Legislators were unwilling to endorse that trade-off.
The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability voted 7-3 against closing the Tamms “supermax” prison and a women’s prison in Dwight, as Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed. By the same vote, they also opposed closing Murray Developmental Center in Centralia.
The commission also gave a thumbs-down to closing two Department of Corrections halfway houses and a juvenile prison.
The votes were only advisory. The Democratic governor is still free to close the institutions if he wants.
Rep. Patricia Bellock, a top budget negotiator for House Republicans, rejected all the proposed closures. The amount of money involved may be relatively small, she said, but the impact would be huge. Closing halfway houses, for instance, would mean less job training and drug counseling to help inmates start over when they leave prison.
“I don’t feel it’s minor when you’re dealing with people’s lives,” said Bellock, co-chair of the commission.
Some Democrats on the commission supported closing the major facilities. Republicans generally opposed them.
Quinn’s office released a statement saying that despite the commission’s vote, he must “make the difficult decisions necessary to restore fiscal stability.”
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees applauded the commission for opposing Quinn’s “push to force individuals with disabilities out of their homes, reduce mental health treatment, jeopardize prison safety, end re-entry programs and put thousands of public servants out of work.”
The Tamms prison is a relatively new facility that houses the state’s most dangerous and disruptive prisoners. Human rights advocates criticize it for holding prisoners in solitary confinement by keeping them in their cells 23 hours a day. Quinn says moving those inmates to other prisons and shutting Tamms would save about $26 million a year.
Closing the Dwight prison and moving inmates to a penitentiary in Lincoln would save about $37 million. Shutting the halfway houses and youth camps that the commission rejected Tuesday would cut spending by roughly $27 billion.
The advocacy group Juvenile Justice Initiative said the commission should have voted to close the Joliet youth prison instead of spending scarce dollars “on a wasteful, inefficient system” that has seen its population fall by nearly half, to just 990 juveniles.
Quinn’s proposal to close the developmental center in Centralia is not aimed at saving money. It’s part of a larger effort to move people out of institutions and into community care.
Many of the center’s employees attended Tuesday’s hearing. Afterward, they acknowledged the commission’s vote doesn’t mean the center will stay open, but they said it gives them some hope.
“We’re hoping it will change the governor’s plan,” said Shirlena Barnes, who said she has worked there for 17 years. “We’re going to be positive.”
© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.