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Nevada budget woes threaten juvenile justice program

By Susan Voyles • svoyles@rgj.com • February 11, 2011

With Nevada’s help over the past decade, Washoe County officials say they have built a model program to help keep juvenile delinquents out of trouble, including close supervision, counseling and even new home environments.

With a similar approach taken in Clark County and other counties, Washoe Juvenile Services Director Carey Stewart said they have been successful: Despite a growing population, the number of youths sent to state juvenile detention facilities each year has dropped, from 571 youths committed in 1998 to 269 in 2010.

That’s 302 youths the state no longer funds in institutions.

And at Washoe County’s own juvenile detention facilities, only 72 beds on average were filled of 108 beds last year.

But with Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposal to yank money for alternative programs serving juveniles — which are also far less expensive than running detention facilities, Stewart said the whole system is at risk of breaking down.

One way or another, at least 220 youths in Washoe County could be directly affected by the governor’s cuts, based on the number of youths in alternative programs in 2010.
“We are obviously alarmed in juvenile justice,” Stewart said. “When you look at all the programs that are making changes for kids, it’s the perfect storm,” Stewart said. “We in essence are doing away with all of our upfront services.”

But without alternatives providing treatment, he fears that more youths could be sent “through a revolving door” at detention facilities. That means they’d be back on the street, presenting a danger to others, and possibly going on to a life of crime.

At the same time, Sandoval is proposing to take 50 beds for juvenile boys offline at the 160-bed Nevada Youth Training Center in Elko. Another 140 youths, including 40 girls, are at the youth center in Caliente.

The governor, however, can’t stop family court judges from ordering youths to be sent to state detention facilities, Stewart said.

With fewer alternatives, he said, more youths more will be committed to the state detention centers. And that could end up costing the state more, he said.

Heidi Gansert, the governor’s chief of staff, said the state expects the counties to take over the preventive services because they are county programs. She said it is not the state’s intention for the programs to go away.

She also cautioned that it’s only the first week of the legislature. “It’s a process. The governor is taking the time to meet with county leaders. They may have good ideas. We can’t spend more money, but we can move between the lines.”

While preventive services would be dropped, the governor’s budget also adds $1 million in new costs to the county.

The governor proposes to charge the county $830,000 a year for state parole officers who oversee youths paroled from state institutions and he would stop paying the county $134,000 a year for detaining those youth for parole violations at Wittenberg Hall.

That would be a hefty burden for his current $13.5 million budget to absorb at a time when the county intends to cut his budget by another 2.7 percent next year.

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