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How Budget Cuts Could Harm At-Risk Kids

Miles Bryan

Wyoming has one of the highest juvenile incarceration rates in the nation, and state budget cuts are likely to make that problem worse, according to members of the State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice.

Like with other deep cuts to public-health and corrections budgets, members expressed concern that the reductions in juvenile justice will not only harm at-risk youth, but will end up costing the state more money down the line.

The Wyoming Department of Family Services eliminated two programs as part of the $250 million statewide budget cut Gov. Mark Gordon announced Aug. 26. DFS reduced its budget by $13 million. The agency eliminated vacant positions, tightened its operating costs and replaced state funding with federal dollars where it could, according to department documents describing the reduction.

The two programs on the chopping block include one to help low-income families cover funeral costs and the Community Juvenile Services Boards program.

Cutting the latter will drive up detention rates among the state's youth, and associated costs to the state, members of the State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice warned at a meeting last week.

"We need to look at ways of making sure that some of these programs are continually funded," Adrienne Freng, an SACJJ member and the chair of University of Wyoming's criminal justice program, said. "That is unless we want to spend more on juvenile detention."

Local experts, diversion strategies

Fourteen Wyoming counties use DFS funding to maintain Community Juvenile Services Boards. The boards are made up of local health, education and justice system officials along with mental health and substance abuse treatment professionals and youth advocates.

Those local experts spend state money on programs to prevent juvenile delinquency. Youth who run into trouble are kept out of the court system and avoid the lasting damage of court records and detention programs. The boards can instead direct juveniles into community service, tutoring and mentoring programs.

Keeping children - especially those from low-income or high-risk backgrounds - out of the courtroom can ensure that youthful lawbreaking does not snowball into life-derailing results, advocates say. Juvenile detention centers and court records, they argue, create obstacles to children overcoming the factors that drove the lawbreaking in the first place. Elsewhere, researchers have documented links between poor juvenile justice outcomes and higher adult incarcerated populations - an expensive fiscal burden as well as an undesirable result for public safety.

Ceasing to fund the boards will save the state $579,000 a year.

In a letter to Albany County's juvenile service board, Lindsey Schilling, a senior administrator in DFS's Social Services Division, categorized the change as a "program elimination." However, "the statutory infrastructure and authority for operations of the board shall remain in place," she wrote.

Counties could elect to maintain the program using "other funds," Schilling wrote. Many Wyoming counties face their own budget woes, however.

The state money stops July 1, 2021, according to the budget documents.

The Wyoming Legislature will have to approve the program elimination before then, however. Without a change to the statutes that require DFS to pay for the local juvenile justice boards, the agency will likely be violating the law that says it "shall" fund community juvenile services, in conjunction with the departments of health and education.

"To implement on July 1, we do agree that we would need to see some statute changes," Schilling said.

Lawmakers need to understand that trying to save money by eliminating or reducing prevention programs just pushes costs down the road, members of the advisory council said. It would be incumbent on people working in prevention to make the case, they said.

"There's a lot of things that we do as county agencies that I think go unseen," advisory board member Melinda Cox, the director of Treatment Courts of Fremont County, a government-funded-diversion program for both juveniles and adults, said. "Any one of our programs shutting its doors is detrimental to not only our counties, but our state … It affects a lot of families, it affects schools, it affects community resources. And so we have an obligation to the clients we serve, and to our state, to put up this fight."

Last fiscal year, Fremont County's juvenile services board handled 448 citations local law enforcement issued to juveniles, Cox told WyoFile Monday. (Because some citations are issued to the same person, Cox noted, each citation does not represent one child.) Using supervision and precourt diversion programs supported by the state funding, the local board directed 374 of those citations away from juvenile court or detention, Cox said.

"We keep a lot of kids out of the court system as much as we can," she said.

Fremont County's juvenile justice board gets $47,000 a year from the program DFS seeks to eliminate in July 2021. The majority of its funding comes from the county government and the municipal governments of Lander and Riverton, Cox said. Those governments, however, have also made recent cuts to prevention services, she said.

The DFS budget cut "will drastically reduce what we can do," Cox said.

The state has to date failed to collect sufficient data on prevention programs' successes that could prove that point. One advisory council member worried that cutting the DFS program will make it even harder to illustrate the value of preventative programs in juvenile justice.

"We've long recognized that we need to do a better job of articulating objectively as possible that diversion or prevention ... saves money," Craig Fisgus, a project director for the nonprofit Volunteers of America, said.

The coming cut "just pushes it further down the line to be able to articulate that," Fisgus said. "It's frustrating."

Just the beginning

Lawmakers and officials are still sorting out the impacts of the first 10% cut, but more reductions are on the way. Gordon has ordered agencies to identify another 10% spending reduction, and asked the Legislature to cut an additional 10% itself.

The steep cuts come in response to plunging oil and coal tax revenues as well as hits to the state's sales tax collections because of the pandemic. They follow several years of budget cuts made by the Legislature, Gordon and former Gov. Matt Mead.

At DFS, the first 10% the Gordon administration eliminated this year has already put the agency's ability to meet its mission in jeopardy, officials said.

"Where we've come to now is looking at our ability to reduce our general fund spending another 10% and still meet our statutory obligations as a human services agency," Schilling told the state advisory council. "There are some areas in the agency where there just isn't any additional money that we could potentially cut."

Correction: A previous version of this story misindentified Craig Fisgus as Craig Fiscus, and listed him incorrectly as a member of the State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice and a regional director. 

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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