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Money-saving cuts to juvenile detention are costing Utah taxpayers

Published October 8, 2013 10:34 pm

Corrections • Transporting Weber youths to other sites poses hardship for parents and police.
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Roy • Many of the beds in the Weber Valley Detention Center stand empty these days.

The beds and the youths who should be filling them — and there are a lot — have fallen victim to budget cuts.

More than a year after Utah lawmakers decided not to fully fund the juvenile detention center in the state's fourth most populous county, the number of Weber County youths who suddenly find themselves incarcerated outside of the county has jumped by more than 370 percent, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis has found.

For a system that prides itself on rehabilitating youths, there are staggering implications: Visiting with family and legal counsel is more complicated, Utahns are on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars more in taxes and community police protection is reduced.

Ogden Police Chief Mike Ashment said if the state doesn't fix the problem soon, things are just going to get worse.

"It's absolutely critical because really what's going to happen is if the state doesn't address that issue long-term up here, you'll see Farmington Bay [Youth Center] become overrun with [more] juveniles than they can handle. It's a public safety issue, and it's an issue for juveniles and their families."

Financial impacts • More than a year ago, state budget constraints forced a funding cut to the Weber Valley Detention Center, which primarily serves youth in Weber and Morgan counties.

Millions in federal funds dried up and the Utah legislature chose not to replace those funds, instead opting to fund the facility on a year-to-year basis, a move that led state juvenile officials to pare the number of beds available to youths from 34 to 16.

The impacts of those cuts have been felt as far south as Salt Lake County.

Weber Valley is at capacity most of the time now, said Susan Burke, director of the state's Juvenile Justice Services. Weber Valley has been allotted one-time funding of $1.2 million, which is creating a lot of uncertainty as to whether the facility will survive the next legislative session. A recent infusion of $166,300 has allowed Weber Valley to increase the number of beds available to 24, Burke said.

"Of course, it creates an uneasiness in the community," she said of the budget cuts.

One reason for that unease is that courts and cops are forced to ship youths to Davis County's Farmington Bay facility, which is about 30 miles away.

Since the cuts took effect last year, the number of Weber County youths taken to Farmington Bay has jumped from 85 to 401, state records show.

That increase has decreased the number of Davis County youths incarcerated in their own county's juvenile center. Davis youths are being shipped to Salt Lake County or aren't being incarcerated where there is overcrowding, state officials said.

Rep. Richard Greenwood, R-Roy, who represents parts of Weber and Davis counties, said he regrets the cuts and has been a passionate advocate for funding to be reinstated.

He said that the cuts to the facility were made in an effort to save money during a down economy but have actually "increased the costs to taxpayers significantly."

From Jan. 1 through Aug. 21, Weber County sheriff's deputies provided 176 transports from Farmington Bay to Weber County juvenile courts at a price tag of $39,107.20 — or $222.20 per transport, Weber County Sheriff Terry L. Thompson said. That's about $111 more than it costs local taxpayers to keep youths in the county, he said.

For Ogden police, at a conservative estimate of four trips a week, it costs taxpayers nearly $12,500 a year to transport youths to Farmington Bay compared with just more than $5,000 to go to Weber Valley, Ashment said.

But that, he added, is not the biggest issue.

Officers off the street • For police, the change has affected public protection, particularly in the region's smallest communities, Ashment said.

"The real issue is the amount of time it takes the officer off the street," the Ogden chief said.

He said his city has multiple officers working per shift, but for tinier cities with one or two officers working per shift, the change has left some with little to no law enforcement protection at times because police have to leave the county to take a child to detention.

Even for the robustly staffed Weber County Sheriff's Office, it's a challenge.

"We just don't have that kind of power to just let people go," Thompson said.

In the first eight months of 2013, he said deputies have logged 68.5 hours of overtime resulting from transporting youths to juvenile facilities.

By taking juveniles out of the area, Thompson said, they have "very limited access to their family, their loved ones, their legal counsel."

'Might as well be 2,700 miles' • At about 30 miles away, the Farmington Bay facility might seem like a convenient and easy alternative, but it's not, said Greenwood, who also works as a Weber County sheriff's deputy when he's not serving in the Utah Legislature.

For low-income families without access to a car, it has created a hardship for a number of parents trying to reach their children.

"You've got to understand, 27 miles might as well be 2,700 miles for some of the families," he said, "because they don't have the resources to travel to their child."

One of the most heart-rending stories Greenwood has heard recently was from a Weber County mother whose child, by court order, was supposed to be freed from detention.

"I don't have the transportation to go down to Farmington Bay or Salt Lake. I don't know how to get my child back home," Greenwood said the mother told him.

He said the mom's issue is an increasingly common plight.

"That creates quite a burden on families," he said. "I think what they have to do is make a lot of phone calls to family and friends."

In most cases, the juvenile-justice system encourages parental involvement, including attending hearings and visiting the youths as a cornerstone of rehabilitation efforts.

"It's tough to support them," Greenwood said, "when you can't get to them."

Pay less now or pay more later • Greenwood said the bed reduction doesn't mean youths won't be getting services, it just means it's going to cost the state and local taxpayers in Weber and Davis counties even more to give them that attention.

And it comes down to whether Utahns want to spend less now — to keep kids from reoffending as adults — or more later when they didn't get the services they needed and land in the adult system, Greenwood said.

"For every dollar we spend [now], we're saving about $4.50 [later]," Greenwood said. "It's one of those situations where you pay us now [or] you pay us later. [If we do it now], you're going to save in the long run."

Ashment said Gov. Gary Herbert's blessing could go a long way toward restored funding.

"Ideally, it would be nice in the governor's budget that he would keep Weber Valley open at 100 percent capacity," Ashment said.

Burke, with Juvenile Justice Services, said it would cost about $2.1 million to restore the center to its 34-bed capacity. She said her division is not asking that the center be restored to full capacity. Instead, she's asking for ongoing funding to maintain the center at its current 24 beds, which will cost an estimated $1.2 million during the next budget cycle.

Greenwood is optimistic about Weber Valley's prospects. "Because of the economy turning around, I think there is money there that will be able to bring the facility back up to full strength."

The governor's spokeswoman Ally Isom said Herbert won't know until early December, when he traditionally announces his proposed budget for the upcoming legislative session, whether money will be available.

"We will be taking this and all other requests into account as we develop the governor's budget," Isom said. "This [situation] is one of the challenging symptoms of a contracting economy."

But she acknowledged that housing youths so far away from home must "be a significant challenge" for families.

"It is indeed frustrating," she said.

State leaders are currently taking a much broader look at how the corrections system is working, Isom said, and how it can be improved.

"We want to take a look at the bigger picture, not just [apply] Band-Aids," she said. "We're really taking a holistic look at where our systems are challenged and what are the root causes."


Twitter: @sltribjanelle






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