Board fights for offender-program funds | SteamboatToday.com

Board fights for offender-program funds

Susan Cunningham

Proposed cuts in state-funded programs to help youth offenders could do more harm than good, financially and socially, officials say.

The cuts could mean more youths are put in jail, more money is spent on juvenile detention facilities, and dangerous youths are released to the community without surveillance. Kelly Weimer, Senate Bill 94 coordinator for the 14th Judicial District, and District Judge Michael O’Hara expressed concern about the cuts to Routt County commissioners Tuesday. Representatives from probation and human services echoed those concerns.

Programs outlined by Senate Bill 94, passed in 1991 to keep youths out of expensive detention facilities, could face drastic changes if the Joint Budget Committee succeeds in decreasing the program budget from $9 million to $3 million.

“This is going to cause the elimination of the most basic services in our area,” Weimer said. “We’re pretty much down to case management, and that’s it.”

The program serves the 20 percent of juvenile offenders who are the highest risk and most dangerous, O’Hara said. With proposed cuts, the number served would decrease by 90 percent.

Routt County commissioners agreed the cuts would be detrimental and said they would write the state and encourage that cuts not be made. County commissioners said they would emphasize that the cuts would cause more costs because more detention facilities would be needed.

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In the 14th Judicial District, funds are divided among Routt, Moffat and Grand counties; last year, the district received $84,000. Counties fund their own Community Evaluation Teams, which each has a case manager.

The teams work with young offenders before they are sentenced to help keep them out of jail, if possible, and pay for services such as monitoring, drug testing and psychological evaluations.

The teams, which include representatives from schools, human services, attorneys, mental health and probation, then give the ruling judge a recommendation on how each youth would be punished most effectively.

“I think time has shown that it works better than locking children up,” O’Hara said. “This whole program was set up to avoid the huge expenses of building new juvenile detention facilities.”

Between 20 and 40 youths are served each year in the 14th Judicial District, Weimer said.

Since other rules and the size of detention facilities cap the number of children who can be put in jail, cuts to Senate Bill 94 programs could mean children are released to the community.

“These are the kids, again, that are going to be running around the community with no supervision if the beds are full,” Weimer said.

If the entire program is left with only $3 million, O’Hara said he feared the 14th Judicial District would receive no funding, as all of the dollars would go to Denver and other high-density areas.