Systems Change & Shrinking Budgets: Improving a Juvenile Justice System despite Declining Resources

By Stephani, Cheryl | Corrections Today, February 2004 | Go to article overview
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Systems Change & Shrinking Budgets: Improving a Juvenile Justice System despite Declining Resources


Stephani, Cheryl, Corrections Today


Creating something from virtually nothing, spinning straw into gold, making stone soup and feeding the village, taking a few loaves of bread and a few fish and providing for a multitude of people--these and other traditional stories may have modern day implications for juvenile justice professionals. As is depicted in the Bible, tackling the seemingly impossible (feeding a large crowd of people) with extremely limited resources (a few loaves of bread and some fish) is amazing both in the end result (no one went away hungry) and the sheer audacity of the initial undertaking. Who would have thought that it could be done? Surely, one would need much more than was apparently available to fill those hungry stomachs.

In this era of shrinking resources, declining populations and growing complexity of youth treatment issues, how does an agency meet the demand for new and better services to address the rehabilitation needs of juveniles? Can an organization deal with a fiscal crisis and still move in a direction that provides better outcomes for juveniles and their families?

Amid shrinking resources, program closures, underfunded treatment interventions and difficult legislative sessions, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) decided to examine options for improving services to youths committed to state care. Facing an already insufficient base budget, the leadership team forged ahead to significantly change interventions for youths, developing and implementing an integrated treatment model that holistically addresses treatment interventions for youths and their families from admission through aftercare.

The Challenge: Retrench or Retool?

Along with 47 other states, Washington has been faced with monumental budget deficits during the past few years. Balancing the state budget meant making deep cuts in existing programs and services. In Washington, JRA lost $14.8 million during the four-year period from fiscal years 2001 through 2004. Some of the reductions were due to a downturn in the population of youths committed to state longterm residential care. With JRA's base budget driven by population forecasts, a decrease in the population means a reduction in beds, and beds were reduced across the entire continuum of residential care. Two medium-security youth forestry camp programs were closed within three years, minimum-security group care beds were lost and entire housing units were mothballed on the remaining secure campuses. Although staff philosophically acknowledge that a reduced need for long-term residential juvenile services is a positive situation, the loss of friends and colleagues due to facility and unit closures took its toll on staff morale and optimum programming opportunities for youths.

In addition to bed reductions, service reductions occurred. Although cutbacks were successive and the impact to programs was felt over time, the comprehensive list of programs and services that were reduced or eliminated is staggering, particularly in parole aftercare programs. Employment programs, day reporting programs, counselor assistant services, key elements of the intensive aftercare program, staff specialists for substance abuse and sex offending treatment issues, and administrative and support services are all gone or have been significantly reduced. State employees received no cost-of-living increases for two years and saw their health care premiums increase.

At the same time, legislative appropriations did not provide the resources necessary to meet the mental health needs of youths in the system. Both the acuity of the treatment needs for these youths and the proportion of the population with significant mental health issues were growing. Today, more than 60 percent of the youths committed to JRA care either have a significant mental health issue identified on the standard mental health diagnostic tool, the DSM-IV (excluding oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, pedophilia or substance abuse as a single issue), are taking psychotropic medications or have been suicidal within the past six months.

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