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The Department of Juvenile Justice Services has not been the same since the economic downturn.
Funding cuts year after year have forced the department to eliminate staff, remove beds and close facilities.
This year stands to bring more of the same, officials said, unless the Utah Legislature can find millions of dollars to allocate and save several of the departments' programs.
Two of the department's programs are set to close down by summer, leaving hundreds of youths without a place to sleep or a community-service option. If funding does not present itself, more beds in the department's receiving centers will be eliminated, services will be reduced and hours limited.
"Maybe the question we should be asking is not should we fund this, but, rather, how can we fund this?" fiscal analyst Zack King told legislators Friday at a meeting of the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. "There's no question that they provide valuable services to children and to our communities. But right now they're operating on a lot less than they need."
Few ideas of where the money might come from were raised at the meeting, though some legislators pointed to a bill that would enable local governments and private citizens to donate money to the department.
The problem, said Juvenile Justice Services Director Susan Burke, is that few local governments have the resources to make a significant dent in the shortfall.
On top of the recommended general fund allocation $82.7 million, about $2.2 million less than they received last year state legislators discussed funding for specific programs, such as the department's Genesis Work Camp, a program that allows hundreds of youths to perform community service hours by removing snow and litter, volunteering at local charities and assisting in disaster relief, among other things.
Genesis was cut from 50 beds to 40 last year due to budget cuts. This year, if the department does not receive $1.25 million to support the program, Genesis will shut down over the summer.
"This program teaches young people what it means to have social responsibility and community connection," Burke said. "We believe if we can intervene at an early age, it makes a huge difference down the road."
Also slated to close this summer is the Weber Valley Detention Center, which was reduced from 34 beds to 16 last year. The detention center, which houses juvenile offenders, was not included in Gov. Gary Herbert's budget proposal.
If the center closes, law enforcement agencies along the Wasatch Front and neighboring detention centers will feel the effects, argued Rep. Richard Greenwood, R-Roy.
"Many days, that facility is full and juveniles have to be transferred to Farmington Bay, and if they're full, to Salt Lake County," Greenwood said. "If we close down that facility altogether, where are these juveniles going to go? It's going to have a significant impact on the entire community."
The center needs $1.2 million to continue to function, for which Greenwood has drafted a budget proposal.
Also on the chopping block: Several beds at the department's Blanding and Cedar City receiving centers, where youth services programs are offered. If funding for these centers continues to decline, Burke said, they will have to reduce beds and hours of operation and whittle away at the services they provide.
The receiving centers' biggest blow came in 2010, when Medicaid reform cut off a large source of federal funding to the department. The state has tried to subsidize some of this loss, but has been hampered by budget reductions and a struggling economy.
The Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst recommended an ongoing increase of $1.2 million to the general funds to support the Genesis Work Camp and a one-time increase of $750,000 to support receiving centers in Blanding and Cedar City if the legislature can find the money. It did not make any recommendations on the detention center, because it is not included in the governor's budget.
Burke assured legislators of their return on investment: for every $1 spent, she said, it saves the state $5 in future crime, delinquency and punishment.
"Corrections is what corrections is," said subcommittee chair Rep. Eric Huchings, R-Kearns. "But youth are very, very maleable. We have an opportunity here to make an impact, and early intervention is the key."