JJ Trend Emerging in State Budget Crises: Let the Counties Do It

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There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but there is a clear pattern affecting juvenile justice that is emerging in states with enormous budget shortfalls for 2010 and beyond. Many states are passing the buck to the counties; or rather, passing the responsibility for juvenile justice to the counties – without the buck.

And, guess what? Counties are not happy about it.

For your consideration, the situation in three states:

Tennessee ($1.5 billion shortfall for 2011)

Carroll Academy is a successful alternative high school in Tennessee. Judges in seven Tennessee counties routinely send low-level juvenile offenders to the school in lieu of a more formal sentence. In the two years before the school opened in 1994, judges in those counties committed 80 kids to the state. Since then, they have committed a TOTAL of 68 – in 15 years.

Carroll is a bit of an odd duck structurally, though. It is not part of any school district, but credits accumulated by its students transfer to their regular schools with them. It is not overseen by the juvenile justice school system, but the approximately $650,000 it receives each year from the state juvenile justice department is one of its primary sources of revenue.

Carroll Academy, along with 30 other juvenile prevention programs around the state, faced extinction last year when the state zeroed out the $7 million in juvenile prevention grants. But federal Recovery Act money alleviated pressure enough in 2009 for Tennessee to restore the grants.

This year, no manna is falling from the federal heavens. Short of a fiscal miracle, Carroll Academy and a number of the other former state grantees will shut down later this year.

“Most say they will be going out of business,” said Deputy Commissioner of Juvenile Justice Steve Hornsby, who you can bet has heard an earful from every judge that leans on such programs. “I hate it, I have nothing but positive comments for all of them. They are doing a good job.”

But Hornsby said the reality of his administration’s budget for next year renders any discussion of saving the prevention fund impossible. “The original [legislative] budget plan had us closing all of our group homes,” he said. And while he concedes that probably 20 percent of the youth in residential or locked facilities could be in less restrictive settings, that amount is not enough to warrant closing any of the state-run buildings.

Oh, and then there is that little thing called politics. “No legislator wants a facility closed in their district,” he said. 

But Hornsby was as critical of county priorities as he was praiseful of Carroll Academy’s ilk. “Communities are gonna have to step up to the plate and start trying to look at ways to reduce juvenile delinquency within home counties and school districts,” he told JJ Today.

That’s what Carroll Academy does; what he means is, counties need to step up and pay for it.

“Prevention programs are addicted to state money,” said Hornsby. “Everyone starts acting like an addict. These issues are first and foremost community.”

Randy Hatch, the longtime senior administrator of Carroll Academy, doesn’t see it as a realistic option (full disclosure: he is an employee of Carroll County).

“Counties are not in any situation to help right now, it’s highly unlikely they’d come up with this type of funding,” Hatch said. And in a cruel twist, he added, county juvenile judges were told this fall that if they exceed their quote of youths committed to the state system, the county would be responsible for excess costs.

So now, if the judges decide to commit any of the youths they might have sent to Carroll Academy, they risk running up a commit rate over their county’s quota and costing the county money. Which might be a good thing, if such a rule forced judges into using less restrictive alternatives. But judges in this case were already using the alternative –Carroll – and keeping youth out of the state’s hair.

“We keep kids out of state custody,” Hatch said. “I don’t know how you run a juvenile justice system without prevention programs.”

Arizona ($3.2 billion shortfall for 2011)

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has made the most aggressive proposal: shuttering the state juvenile corrections department, and pushing all responsibility for JJ to counties. 

That would mean layoffs for 980 state employees, including 140 juvenile corrections staff from the state’s three facilities. The state pays about $67 million per year to handle the youth locked up in the three centers.

“The national movement is to decentralize the holding of juveniles," said John Arnold, Brewer’s budget director. "They do better when kept closer to their communities."

That’s true, and most JJ advocates would tell you they want to see offenders as close to home and in the least restrictive setting possible. But this would essentially force counties – in the space of a year – to equip themselves to handle and pay for the most seriously troubled youth in the juvenile justice system, while also managing whatever juvenile caseload it already has. That could lead to some good consequences (like counties investing in cost-effective alternatives to incarceration) or bad consequences (like prosecutors trying to move more youth over to the adult system).

We’ll see if this plan makes it very far in budget negotiations. As Tennessee’s Hornsby points out, no legislator from the districts where those three state facilities are located wants to okay a plan that renders all of its union workers unemployed.  

Iowa ($1 billion shortfall for 2011)

Senate Study Bill 3030 would eliminate the Juvenile Detention Home Fund, which over the past two years has provided counties with nearly $8 million to operate detention centers. That loss of funds, with counties already budget crunching, would almost certainly be the end of some of Iowa’s 11 county-run detention centers.

Might that lead to a lower total of youth being detained or housed in centers? Yes. But judges will still want to detain most of the youth they would have detained at their nearby center; closing those county-run detention centers will mean those same  juveniles will be locked up further away. And the centers that do stay open almost certainly will see an uptick in population.

"It's going to set us back 20 years," Lori Reynolds, executive director of Iowa Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health, told the Des Moines Register’s Jason Clayworth. "We think we have kids falling through the cracks now? Just give us a couple of years."

The good news there, at least, is that Iowa has lowered the average daily population in some of its centers by as much as 40 percent, thanks in part to working with Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

Detention populations might be further thinned out in the state if the legislature passes a bill now under consideration that would eliminate dispositional holds, which allow judges to lock a youth up for 48 hours in detention as a sentence.