AMI, Other Alternatives to Lockup Hit Hard by State Budget Cuts

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While hopes are high in Washington that the federal government will soon make inspired investments in juvenile justice, the state dollars that help good programs survive are dwindling.

The Associated Press produced an excellent rundown of recent budget cuts to juvenile justice agencies in various states, in an article that was released to newspapers this week. The story was picked up by numerous papers, and it includes a chart that lists specific items that states will forgo this year.

To no surprise of JJ Today readers, the non-incarceration programs appear to bear the brunt of the worsening economy.

"I've been around when the pendulum has swung philosophically" and non-secure programs have had to plead their case, said O.B. Stander, CEO of the renowned Associated Marine Institute (AMI). "That is not the case here. They [states] just don't have money."

We divided the specified cuts listed by AP into staff, secure facilities and other (residential, alternative, diversion, group homes, wilderness, etc.). Of the 13 states AP identified:

-Seven closed programs and non-secure facilities.

-Four are making cutbacks in staff, are not filling open positions or are canceling planned increases in hires.

-Three closed secure facilities (New York is closing six barely-used ones; Nevada is simply closing two vacant cottages at a reformatory).

It is highly unlikely that this is the worst of it. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has already forecasted that 28 states will begin 2010 with budget shortfalls, so cuts in other states seem  imminent.

"We expect there will be more cutbacks" next year, Stander said.

AMI would know better than almost any organization. It operates residential, employment training and other JJ programs in eight states. Florida's budget woes (pass an income tax!) caused two of its camps to close last year; already, South Carolina's budget cuts have temporarily shut down one there. 

It's the last thing that Bill Byars, head of the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice, wants to do. He was brought in six years ago with the state's JJ system knee-deep in a federal lawsuit.

"The governor gave me two directions," Byars told JJ Today. "Get out of the lawsuit, and quit warehousing kids."

He accomplished both. And with an intensive supervision program Byars started, in which case managers start helping youth and families prepare for a DJJ facility release months in advance, recidivism rates were driven down.

As the economy tanked, Byars cut that supervision program back to a five-county pilot project. Also cut were a gang intervention program and a community prevention partnership.

Now? You name it: Closing at least one AMI camp, elimination of job programs for young offenders and after-school programs in the detention facility, and almost certain closure of the state's five JJ group homes.

Byars has no illusions about the implications: Many of the youths he would have sent to those places will now have to go to the correctional facility, a sprawling complex behind a razor wire fence.

"The problem is, I can't put the kids behind the fence with AMI," Byars said. "But I can bring AMI kids inside the fence."

He doesn't blame the state for forcing the cuts on him, but he also doesn't plan on taking it without a fight. Unlike many states, South Carolina has a budget control board that issues the "slash your spending" decrees but also can grant the authority for an agency to run a deficit. 

Byars plans to ask for permission to do exactly that early next year. His best argument could be a compelling one for the state: Fear of a return to court with the feds.

"My concern is, as frontline programs go away, then historically you will have an upsurge in juvenile crime," Byars said. That could cause the type of overcrowding in lockup that got the state in trouble in the first place.

"My judgment is that I cannot make the cuts they have asked me to make and stay in compliance" with the court order that ended the federal lawsuit, Byars said.