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Budget Cuts Threaten Oregon Juvenile Offenders

Even in the face of a $3.5 billion shortfall in the 2011-2013 biennial budget cycle which began on July 1, 2011, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber refused to touch the $1.5 billion budget of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC). Instead he turned his budget knife on every other state agency, cutting to the bone as he tried to find about $200 million in savings. One of the agencies slated for cuts was the Oregon Youth Authority.

“The Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) was not singled out,” noted the governor’s Communications Director, Tim Raphael. Kitzhaber proposed slashing $34.5 million from OYA – one fifth of its general fund budget – and wanted the Department of Education to eliminate schooling for kids in state custody, saving another $1.6 million.

Juvenile system administrators recognized the daunting economic challenges facing the state, but criticized the governor’s plan to impose “draconian” cuts on OYA’s budget as being harmful to children in the short-term and self-defeating in the long-run.

“These cuts will cause a major shift in the way we handle juvenile justice in Oregon,” noted Scott Taylor, director of the Multnomah County Community Justice Department. “It’s a huge change,” agreed Deb Patterson, Crook County Juvenile Department Director.

At its peak in 2001, OYA had 1,131 “close custody” beds – the juvenile equivalent of adult prison beds – and currently operates 887 close custody beds. Forecasts estimate that 962 beds will be needed going forward, but the state would have less than half that many under Kitzhaber’s budget reduction plan, which eliminates 412 beds.

OYA presently has about 1,866 youths under its supervision – 1,633 boys and 233 girls. Fifty-five percent (1,032) are on juvenile parole and 834 are in custody. Kitzhaber’s plan would shift some close custody youths to less secure community programs, bumping children from those programs early to make room, according to juvenile authorities.

“If these services worked for those kids, they would not be going to close custody,” observed Torri Lynn, director of the Linn County Juvenile Department. “The kids failed at that lower level.”

In the past ten years the number of criminal referrals to juvenile authorities has dropped one-third as OYA has worked diligently to make the system smarter and more focused, catching juveniles earlier and rehabilitating even seemingly incorrigible youth. Those who work in the field expressed fear that their hard work would be undone with one fatal blow of the budget axe.

With fewer juvenile offenders offered full state services, more would end up in community treatment programs. Worse, Kitzhaber’s plan threatened to cut about $6 million in payments to juvenile services on the county level.

According to Taylor, that cut alone would force reductions in an intensive drug and alcohol program that currently treats fifteen juveniles at a time in Multnomah County. “This is the last stop,” said Taylor. “If we can’t get a change in their behavior, their next step will be the Youth Authority.”

The number of juveniles sentenced to state custody is projected to remain steady at 2,000 a year, which, under Kitzhaber’s plan, would force officials to release one juvenile offender every time another is sentenced.

“That means youth in OYA’s facilities will be released before completing treatment, which increases their likelihood to commit new crimes,” stated OYA director and former ODOC administrator Collette Peters. On that point everyone agreed. “We’ll be seeing more kids committing more crimes, and victims being re-victimized,” predicted Patterson.

“We’re in a business to reduce the failure rate and make the community safer,” Taylor stated. “Its going to be harder and harder to achieve that end. A higher failure rate [for juveniles] just feeds the adult system.” Which would be a short-sighted approach that achieves only short-term savings, as juvenile offenders who become adult criminals will cost the state more in future incarceration costs.

Fortunately, the budget blow to the OYA was not as bad as Governor Kitzhaber initially proposed. The state legislature decided to cut the agency’s budget by about $11 million, resulting in a net loss of only around 50 beds. The OYA will have to cut 119 job positions and close 150 close custody beds, but would add 103 lower-security beds. Most of the bed reductions would be at the Hillcrest, MacLaren and Oak Creek facilities. No juvenile facilities will be closed and the proposed cuts to county juvenile programs were rescinded.

“Our hope is that we’re able to preserve public safety and better serve these kids,” said Peters.

Lawmakers also imposed modest budget cuts on the ODOC, amounting to $4 million out of a total $1.5 billion budget for the state’s prison system.

Sources: The Oregonian,,

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