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As Economy Falters, Rehabilitative and Substance Abuse Programs Get the Axe

As Economy Falters, Rehabilitative and Substance Abuse Programs Get the Axe

by Mark Wilson

Facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, states are slashing rehabilitative criminal justice programs in a desperate attempt to save money. Critics contend, however, that this is a shortsighted approach that will lead to increased crime rates and associated costs in the long run.

Juvenile offenders are among the hardest hit groups affected by recent budget cuts. Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and other states have responded to declining tax revenues by reducing juvenile justice spending by up to 30 percent.

According to a 2008 survey by the American Correctional Association, five states reported cuts to their juvenile justice budgets totaling over $62 million. Youth advocates predict that as the recession deepens, such cuts will become more widespread. [See: PLN, April 2009, pp.8-9].

As counseling services and group homes are closed, America’s youngest offenders are being shifted from rehabilitative programs to juvenile facilities and sometimes even to adult prisons, with predictable results. “If you raise a child in prison, you’re going to raise a convict,” noted South Carolina Juvenile Justice Director Bill Byars.

Byars is credited with converting the state’s juvenile justice system from one that warehouses children to a more progressive model that counsels juveniles and teaches them life skills. Yet in the last half of 2008, South Carolina officials seeking to cut $1 billion from the state’s budget slashed $23 million in funding, or 20 percent, from the juvenile justice system. Byars has since been ordered to cut another 15 percent from his budget, effectively gutting reform efforts. All five of South Carolina’s group homes for juvenile offenders have been closed, forcing their residents into secure facilities. The state has also terminated after-school and intensive reform programs for at-risk youths. Interestingly, there is always money for prisons.

Similarly, Kentucky has ended its boot camp-style programs for juveniles which were developed by the National Guard. Virginia has cut camps, behavioral services staff, community programs and a transitional facility. Young offenders who participated in those programs are being sent to juvenile prisons.

“It’s not like we’re going to say, ‘O.K., let’s close a juvenile detention center,’ or something like that,” said Gordon Hickey, spokesman for Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine. “We have to reduce spending across the state and the governor looked at suggestions and recommendations from all departments. He certainly realizes that all of these reductions have consequences.”

One of the programs that South Carolina cut was run by Florida-based non-profit Associated Marine Institution (AMI), which operates intensive counseling and wilderness camps. The recidivism rate for AMI graduates was 22%, less than half the state’s juvenile recidivism rate, according to Byars.

Florida also discontinued three AMI programs that cost a total of $1.7 million as part of an effort to reduce its juvenile justice budget by 4 percent, or $18 million. Even more cuts are expected as Florida struggles to fill a $2 billion budget shortfall. The state’s juvenile justice system “is going to die the death of a million 4 percent cuts,” declared Jacqui Colyer, who leads a Florida juvenile justice advocacy group.

The Oregon Youth Authority is preparing for a potential 30 percent budget reduction for 2009-2011. In May 2009 the agency announced it was closing 25 beds at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility; 11 non-violent juvenile offenders will be released, while 14 will be sent to the adult prison system. The state may have to close four juvenile facilities due to budget cuts, including a transitional program.

In New York, the juvenile prison population has actually declined as the state has shifted to a more community-based approach. Governor David Patterson has proposed closing six youth facilities and consolidating or downsizing others that are not fully operational, saving an estimated $26 million over the next three years.

In the adult prison system, however, New York has terminated an $8.6 million drug counseling contract between the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), the Division of Parole and non-profit groups. Approximately 2,700 parolees received alcohol and drug services under that contract last year, and research indicated the program had effectively reduced recidivism.

“It is a panicky response,” said Harry K. Wexler, whose research for New York-based National Development and Research Institutes found that community-based substance abuse treatment reduced recidivism rates by half over five years. “They are cutting their nose off to spite their face,” he observed.

In October 2008, the DOCS declined to renew a $577,000 annual contract with “Stay’n Out,” a respected drug treatment program that had provided prison-based services since 1977. Simultaneously, the Division of Parole discontinued its entire drug treatment portfolio, including outpatient and residential treatment statewide.

The DOCS defended its termination of the “Stay’n Out” contract as necessary to “protect its own people.” The department operates an extensive prison-based substance abuse program, serving nearly 11,000 prisoners at a cost of $20 million a year. The program, which is staffed by state prison employees, is more cost-effective than the private programs, claimed DOCS Spokesman Erik Kriss.

Yet no independent group has evaluated the effectiveness of the DOCS prison-based substance abuse program. One reason to be skeptical is the failure of DOCS to provide aftercare to released prisoners. Research has “shown you have to have an aftercare program. It is a big part of the deal,” said Wexler.

“With the state facing record budget deficits, the unfortunate reality is that there will be many worthy programs with laudable goals that will experience reductions in funding,” stated Matt Anderson, spokesman for New York’s Division of the Budget.

While that is certainly true, when it comes to priorities it is unfortunate that rehabilitative programs for juveniles and substance abuse treatment for prisoners are among the first to be cut. Unfortunate not only for juvenile offenders and prisoners with drug and alcohol problems, but also for society as a whole – which will face the long-term consequences of such shortsighted fiscal decisions.

Sources: New York Times, Associated Press,, Statesman Journal

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