|Funding cuts to youth centers would give minor offenders nowhere to go|
|Wednesday, 07 March 2012 14:20|
By Sheena McFarland for The Salt Lake Tribune
Young people who commit minor crimes or are acting out at home may not have a place to go, if the proposed legislative budget doesn’t change before midnight Thursday.
Lawmakers are looking at cutting millions of dollars from Juvenile Justice Services, meaning that several rural youth receiving centers will shutter and others statewide will have limited operating hours.
"Youth Services is a last line of defense for kids who are in an exposed or volatile situation," said Sgt. John Neron of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office. "If they don’t fund these centers, we are going to be in a situation where we have kids exposed to a very harmful situation."
Neron oversees the officers who work full-time at the Salt Lake County Youth Services Center. He sees officers constantly drop off youths who have ditched classes or have gottenin disputes withtheir parents and need somewhere to go that isn’t home but doesn’t warrant a stopover in juvenile detention.
"Instead of doing a reactive incarceration, you can find the root cause of the bad behavior and prevent a problem before it accelerates and goes to court," Neron said.
Salt Lake’s center wouldn’t be closed, but it wouldn’t be able to function 24 hours a day as it does now, said Tammy Champo, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake County Youth Services. That’s a worry to her and the staff because currently there are 90 sites around the county where kids can contact center staff and get picked up any time.
"It’s a safety net," Champo said.
Last year, officers were able to spend an additional 7,500 hours patrolling the streets rather than finding the parents of youths who have committed minor offenses, according to Juvenile Justice Services.
Closing the centers, especially those in the rural areas, will tie up police and waste taxpayer money, Neron said.
About 90 percent of officers who dropped off a minor to a receiving center were back on the street patrolling within 20 minutes, said Elizabeth Sollis, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Human Services.
Kids who don’t get the benefit of an early intervention and an immediate consequence could end up costing the state more as they commit worse crimes and end up in detention or the foster care system, Sollis said.
She also worries about the rural areas that will no longer have community-based centers, meaning police and families will have to take more time to get to and from a center.
"Rural areas already struggle with minimal services," she said. "And in addition, they provide great crisis counseling options."
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he’s sensitive to the receiving center closures because it will affect centers in his hometown.
He said his budget committee colleagues tried to get enough funding to close only the centers in Cedar City and Blanding this year, but Juvenile Justice Services told him they would rather have that money go toward keeping a work camp open in Draper where youth offenders from around the state can earn restitution for victims.
He also realizes the potential consequences of putting first-time offenders in with more hardened, young criminals, but he says he’s following the will of the juvenile justice leaders.