Taft: 156 but now staffed for 96, all-male, ages 16-19, Pikeville

Wilder: 144 but staffed for 108, all male, ages 13-19, Somerville

Mountain View: 108, all male, ages 13-19, Dandridge

Woodland Hills: 120, all male, ages 13-19, Nashville

New Visions: 50, all female, ages 13-19, Nashville

Source: Tennessee Department of Children's Services

If Taft Youth Development Center is closed, Juvenile Court judges and East Tennessee lawmakers are worried not only for its teenage inmates, but also for the more vulnerable residents at the other facilities where Taft's "worst of the worst" may be sent.

"A greater number of our older juveniles would be tried as adults out of necessity," said Bledsoe County Judge Howard Upchurch, who hears the cases of the inmates at Taft, located in Pikeville, who get in trouble for fighting other offenders or staff members at the center.

If that happens, the judge said, then the last chance these teenagers have to turn their lives around prior to real adulthood would be gone, he said.

Over the past few decades, the staff of Taft, along with the judicial workers of Bledsoe, have honed a system that, judging from the results, appears to work.

Taft -- even with its high proportion of the state's toughest juvenile offenders -- has the lowest recidivism rate and highest number of children receiving high school graduations or GEDs of all of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services youth development centers.

"A recent study conducted by DCS showed a recidivism rate of 3 percent for Taft students," said Upchurch, who has organized 20 Juvenile Court judges across the state to oppose Taft's closure. "The average of all the facilities was 11 percent. This included students who returned to [Department of Children's Services] custody as well as those who were later committed to the Department of Correction."

On the other swing of the pendulum is concern for the younger, smaller students who make up almost all the populations at the state's other institutions where Taft students would be sent, Upchurch said.

"Taft's older, larger and more experienced students will control and rule," he said. "In other words, more staff and younger or smaller students would likely be assaulted or under constant threat from Taft's older, more violent offenders."

Department of Children's Services spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said the department's top priority "is the well-being of the youth it serves."

But department officials must find a way to do that with less money.

Gov. Bill Haslam told the department to present a fiscal 2013 budget that cuts $40.3 million in state funding across Tennessee.

To streamline, Department of Children's Services Commissioner Kathryn O'Day has proposed shuttering Taft, which has the highest annual budget, $12.3 million, and the highest per-child cost at $375 a day.

If Taft is closed, state workers would spread those youths among other newer facilities around the state. The net savings would be about $4.4 million a year.

But Sudderth said none of the department's youth facilities "operate at capacity."

"Juvenile crime is down across the nation and Tennessee," she said.

That assertion doesn't seem to be playing in Chattanooga, where increased gang shootings over the past year climaxed in the creation of a new gang task force after nine people were shot in an early Christmas morning altercation outside a local church and youth outreach event.

More than one-third of Taft's 80-plus students come from Chattanooga and Southeast Tennessee. Last week, 21 of the youths were from Chattanooga.

Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey said buildings don't make the programs that help children succeed, and Taft, with specialized programs in carpentry, welding and auto shop, offers proof of that.

"I am critical if the state is saying one program fits all children, because it does not," Bailey said. "None of them are inexpensive. They all cost more than incarcerating adults because of the education needs.

"And they should. These are children," Bailey said.

Sudderth said many of Taft's students would be sent to New Visions Youth Development in Dandridge, about 30 miles east of Knoxville. The facility, with 50 beds, currently houses 24 female juveniles ranging from 13-19.

The girls would "be moved to a contracted, secure facility where specialized services would be available for them," she said. A recently completed expansion there would provide "a new, more secure and stand-alone facility," for the Taft inmates, "separating them from other less violent youth."

Moving youth and money

Balancing this year's state budget seems to be a tell-tale item.

Department of Children's Services was charged by Haslam with presenting a budget that reduces expenses by 5 percent and absorbs the loss of $18.4 million in nonrecurring funds, according to Sudderth.

"This meant the department would have to cut $40.3 million in state funding which results in $54.6 million in total funding reductions because of the amount of federal funding match the department receives," Sudderth said.

The department has been maintaining 657 beds at five centers with funding and staffing that covers only 456 beds, she said.

It also has the highest capacity at 156 offenders. But Sudderth said the state already has begun pulling down that number and last week only 88 youths were there.

O'Day has suggested that many of Taft's 167 employees should be able to find jobs at the nearby $208 million Bledsoe Correctional Complex, a prison for adults slated to open in 2013.

Although a bipartisan group of area lawmakers made it known quickly that they oppose closing Taft, Haslam has said O'Day's proposal seems to have some merit.

"I think Kate's basic argument of does it make sense to have four facilities that are 100 percent full and five that are 80 percent full is very persuasive," he said recently.

But lawmakers and judges contend the numbers used to make that argument are being manipulated by state officials.

On Friday, Southeast Tennessee lawmakers attacked O'Day's assertions that Taft will be more costly to keep open, in part, because the facility is the oldest and its buildings need $37 million in repairs or replacement to keep it open.

O'Day sent an itemized list to the lawmakers showing that five Taft buildings would need to be demolished and replaced, according to Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, who rejects that assertion.

"I have toured the facility multiple times and I am incredulous to the department's desire to demolish buildings based simply on the year the building was built," he said. "Using that rationale, we should demolish the state Capitol and rebuild it because it is old too, built in 1859."

O'Day's list indicates that Taft's 1943 dorms need to be replaced at a cost of $14 million, along with the 1959 administrative building at a cost of $1.1 million, a 1943 cafeteria for $2.1 million, a 1981 security special unit at $1.1 million, a 1932 clinic at $1.5 million a 1957 auxiliary building at $2.3 million. An additional $1.7 million would be needed for site development, paving and demolition, according to the list.

Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, said the buildings have had major renovations in different stages between 1981 and 2005, including new doors, roofs and heating and cooling systems.

"It's hard to believe Taft would have been accredited in 2009 and continually passes fire inspections with so many buildings needing to be demolished and replaced," Harmon said.