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Editor’s note: A version of this story was published by The Macon County News and is being shared here with The Macon County News’ permission.
By Davin L. Eldridge
Macon County News Staff Writer
As North Carolina faces one of the largest state deficits in the country — roughly $2.5 billion — the Senate Justice and Public Safety Appropriations subcommittee has proposed to cut millions of dollars, hundreds of jobs and two holding facilities from the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (DJJDP) to reduce spending.
Department officials say the proposed cuts will do more harm than good for the state.
Last year, approximately 31,198 youths were involved in department community service programs throughout the state, with 19,984 facing court services. In the 28 westernmost counties, 3,893 youths were involved in the court services, while 5,763 were in community service programs.
“I don’t believe there is a full understanding with the people that are making these decisions about the true impact of what could happen with our youth,” said Tammy Martin, DJJDP director of communications. “The department works hard to treat these kids and now it will have to struggle even harder to continue.”
“We have a multi-billion dollar deficit. They can’t sustain a penny cut?” said state Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, co-chairman of the subcommittee responsible for the budget proposal. “We made cuts where we thought there was the least damage to every department or division and we did it responsibly. We’ve done everything we can do to handle the train wreck we’ve been given.”
The Senate budget proposes to fund the department at $135,593,692 for this fiscal year, which is a $15.7 million, or 10 percent, cut from the department’s continuation budget. The planned reduction of approximately 279 personnel, a 15 percent reduction, would also mean the loss of 39 juvenile court counselors and eight chief court counselors.
Carving counselors out of the payroll
Of the 39 court counselor positions slated for termination, the proposed budget is calling to cut one counselor from District 24 (Avery, Madison, Mitchell, Watauga and Yancey counties) and one from District 28 (Buncombe County). The 30th district (the seven westernmost counties) narrowly avoided the personnel chop, due to its size and geographical isolation. Mecklenberg County, on the other hand, is scheduled to lose six court counselors.
Even though the layoffs may not seem terrible, department officials maintain they would adversely impact their ability to effectively manage court counselor caseloads in each judicial district and provide a safe level of post-release supervision to youth released from Youth Development Centers, or YDCs.
“Court counselors are essential in the process of advising judges about proper placement for juveniles,” Martin said. “We have a responsibility to these juveniles, who come under a different set of regulations. I don’t think (lawmakers) considered the requirements that it really takes to take care of them.”
Judicial districts in the state that have avoided the loss of caseworkers will still feel the blow of proposed cuts.
“We might have dodged a bullet by not losing a counselor, but we have even less alternatives now for the treatment of our clients than we did before,” said Chuck Mallonee, chief court counselor for the seven westernmost counties. “We’ll be impacted because it surrounds us… We have dwindling resources. Legislators are willing to make some compromises in education and with young people — I would remind them that they are the same kids that the Department of Juvenile Justice serves.”
Vacant counselor positions are the first to go, followed by probation status employees and then recent hires, said Michael Rieder, DJJDP deputy secretary for court services.
“What the implications will be for our court counselors now is that they will have less time than they’ve had with clients,” Rieder said. “The challenge for them will be to meet the minimum standards of contact required. We will do our best. If we get into a situation where we find we can’t do that, we’re going to have to make some kind of adjustments.”
Rieder said one goal legislators want juvenile workers to meet is the reduction of detention utilized by the department. “To develop those kinds of alternatives in the community and to provide the proper supervision for these children, it’s going to require an intensive level of activity on the part of the court counselors, he said.
Furthermore, with the success of districts 28 and 30 in Western North Carolina, Rieder asserted that taking resources from the area would send out a bad message, as neither district has sent a single juvenile to a YDC in recent year. “What we need to do is reward those districts and help them continue their good work,” he said.
The department recommends that legislators restore court counselor positions to allow for the adequate supervision and post-release supervision of juveniles.
Accompanying the loss of juvenile caseworkers, the Senate budget proposes to shut down a YDC in Samarkand after another was closed in Swannanoa earlier his year.
With their closures, the department would only have the staffing and funds to operate 329 YDC beds for the 2011-12 year. Officials say there never has been a YDC population below 387.
Last February, the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission reported that the department will need an estimated 404 beds for this year, leaving the department 75 beds short.
“With the closing of Samarkand Youth Development Center coupled with the loss of staff positions, we simply will not have the ability to appropriately serve the number of youth committed to the department,” said Kathy Dudley, DJJDP deputy secretary of facility operations. “Please remember, these youth have committed serious and violent offenses. Where will they go? What will they do?”
When the Swannanoa facility closed, Dudley said, staff positions were transferred to other YDCs to expand capacity at such facilities. “With the proposed cuts, we will be about 50 beds short of our current needs and as much as 75 short of projections,” she said. “Treatment teams will face the difficult decisions concerning having to release youth sooner because we won’t have a place for them.”
The department recommends that it retain 58 staff positions and $2.6 million in operating funds from the closed YDCs so it can build capacity at the other facilities.
Cuts could impact progress
What really has department officials upset is that they feel their work thus far has been for naught, as in recent years the rate of juvenile offenses has decreased.
Last July, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced that juvenile arrests for all crimes dropped 11 percent in 2009, while adult arrests for all crimes fell 3 percent. Juvenile arrests for index crime offenses fell 10 percent, while adult arrests for those offenses were down 4 percent.
“A lower crime rate is good for North Carolina’s economic development, our safety and our quality of life,” Cooper said. “But no amount of crime is acceptable and we must continue our focus on better technology, tougher laws and better prevention…We must continue to look for innovative ways to keep kids from turning to gangs and crime, and to keep ex-offenders from becoming repeat offenders when they leave prison.”
DJJDP Director of Communications Tammy Martin said the department losing 15 percent of its workforces is “a devastating cut to a department that only had 1,800 employees to start out with.” Martin’s job is also at risk, as she has been with the department about three months.
“It is an emotional thing for us,” she said. “Juvenile delinquency rates are down. The department has done so much right since its creation in 1998 that it almost seems we’re being punished for having done a good job.”
But reducing the department is nothing personal, say legislators.
“It is a complicated issue with our budget deficit like this,” state Sen. Dan Soucek, R-Watauga, said.“The overriding cry from these departments has been ‘pick someone else’. But the fact is we are going to have to make difficult decisions at every level.”
However, subcommittee member Sen. Daniel Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, contends the budget cuts were not well thought out.
“I did not agree with the cuts for the juvenile department,” Clodfelter said. “It’s much cheaper if you try to prevent problems early on before they come back to haunt you later on.” He said the department reduces recidivism rates of criminal offenders, which in turn decreases the amount of money spent on adult criminals in the long run.
And although juvenile offenses have decreased, Rieder said services court counselors that offer are needed now more than ever.
“Juvenile delinquency has been dropping in our state in the last several years, so the number of kids being handled by court counselors have been decreasing,” Rieder said. “However, the complexity and the seriousness of the issues they’re dealing with have been increasing. We are not dealing with the same kids we were dealing with 10 years ago or certainly 30 years ago, it’s just a different ball game.”
Former YDC youth Michael Cox, who recently received a master’s degree in social work, said he plans to devote his life to helping kids, just like the staff at the Dobbs Youth Development Center in Kinston does.
“At the age of 12, I had my first encounter with the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention,” Cox said. He professed that without the help of the DJJDP, he doesn’t know where he would be today. “I understand there is a budget shortfall, but when it comes to making sacrifices, I hope they remember there are children attached to that cut — a sacrifice too big to make.”