published Monday, February 2nd, 2009

Program cut hurts juvenile offenders

Audio clip

Steve Hornsby

Audio clip

Greg Rivers

Greg Rivers looks at communities in Chattanooga and sees widening gap where once he saw a bridge.

Mr. Rivers oversaw a successful juvenile intensive probation program that had been in place for two decades before federal budget cuts eliminated it last summer.

“This really helped children that just needed some structure and discipline,” said Mr. Rivers, a probation officer. “A lot of the kids just wanted attention that they weren’t getting at home.”

The intensive probation program in Hamilton County offered Juvenile Court judges a “last stop” before sending youths into state custody. Program participants had committed some serious crimes, but through close monitoring and the use of a variety of resources the teens were given another chance.

When the program disappeared last year, that chance went with it.

Money for the program came from federal grants for targeted case management, which until last summer were passed down to states and available for local programs aimed at preventing worsening problems among juveniles, said Steve Hornsby, deputy commissioner for juvenile justice at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

Federal cuts took $73 million out of the department’s budget for a variety of programs across Tennessee. South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia also saw major cuts to juvenile justice spending.

There were eight intensive probation programs and another 24 programs in Tennessee that shared the nearly $5 million in federal prevention and intervention money aimed at juveniles, according to department documents.

The cuts translated locally to 50 percent of the $300,000 it cost to run the intensive probation program in Hamilton County.

Mr. Rivers said the county could not match the other half of money and had either to lay off or transfer the four-person staff that oversaw nearly 100 juveniles a year. The program’s three probation officers made unannounced visits and saw probationers three to four times each week over a year, he said.

In an “11th-hour decision,” Mr. Hornsby said, Congress funded three-quarters of the money and the department was able to contact local agencies for a last-minute reprieve.

Most of the department’s programs continued on reduced funding.

Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey said that without the program more teens will go into state custody than will stay in the community for help.

“I always felt it was one of the strongest programs in our community to attempt to turn those kids away from a life of crime,” Judge Bailey said. Graduates had a 70 percent success rate for the one-year period after leaving the program, she said.

Judge Bailey worked in the juvenile court system when the program began in 1987, and she said she saw it expand and connect schools, churches, parents and the court in the lives of troubled teens.

“Mr. Rivers was excellent at this,” she said. “He acknowledged that many had substantial educational deficits, many were illiterate.”

Opportunities for education, drug counseling, supervision and even college scholarships from Orchard Knob Baptist Church made a significant difference for the young people who graduated from the program, Judge Bailey said.

Greg Bowles, a former probation officer in the program, now works as a process server.

He said the program caseload was smaller than that for a normal probation officer, but the work was much more focused.

“I would just show up at any time,” he said of visits to juveniles’ homes, work and schools. “With that element of surprise, the kids knew to be home.”

He and Mr. Rivers said important points of the program were accountability and keeping the children in the community.

With state custody, Mr. Rivers said, the kids are just “snatched out of here from parents and friends.”

Judge Bailey sees that as a problem.

“We are a minimum of 90 miles away from the nearest state facility,” she said. “The family will be clueless and not able to handle the children coming back from state custody.”

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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