Federal cuts will be felt by programs for juveniles

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2003

The chair of the Alaska Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee recently told the group it faces some serious grant funding issues in the near future.

During the first meeting attended by a member from the Kenai Peninsula in as long as anyone can remember, Tom Begich said that while Alaska received more than $2.8 million in federal juvenile justice grant funds last year, the president's proposed budget would take that number to just over $2 million for next year and an estimated $1.1 million for the following year.

Kenai attorney Carol Brenckle, who became the peninsula's first member of the committee in March, said grants awarded on the Kenai Peninsula fund the Com-munity Care Center and Youth Court.

The advisory committee works with the state's Division of Juvenile Justice to improve the justice system and reduce the unsafe incarceration of youth.

"The Kenai Peninsula Community Care Center grant provides a nonsecure shelter for kids in the juvenile justice system," Brenckle said.

The aim is to place youth in shelters rather than correctional facilities, particularly when the juveniles are charged with a "status" offense, such as drinking alcohol, or if they were on probation and committed a status offense such as smoking cigarettes or violating curfew.

Authorities fear if youths are locked up in adult jails, simply because there is nowhere else for them to go, they are in grave danger of physical abuse, sexual abuse and criminal influences by adult offenders.

"I believe detention is a last resort," said Brenckle, who also advocates the use of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court, funded by a federal juvenile justice grant as well.

"Youth court judges are appointed by the youth court staff and have youth as prosecutors and as defense attorneys and jurors from among their peers," she said. "They cannot impose jail time, but may impose community service or writing essays on the effect of crime on the community."

If offenders fail to comply with sentencing issued by the youth court, they can be referred back to the criminal court system in which punishment would be more severe.

This year, the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court received a grant of $27,000 and the Kenai Peninsula Community Care Center received $50,000.

In addition to federal budget concerns, the advisory committee said the state's federal juvenile justice grant funds are in jeopardy because the state is not in compliance with three of the four core mandates required by the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that allocates the grants.

In a report submitted by the committee to the Alaska Legislature and the governor, the group said the state is not in compliance with the mandate that youth charged with status offenses may not be held in locked detention and correctional facilities.

Nor is the state in compliance with the requirement that youth held temporarily in adult jails may not have sight or sound contact with adult inmates, and the state does not comply with the core mandate that youth accused of delinquent acts may not be held for processing in adult jails for more than six hours before their first court appearance or six hours after court.

Alaska does comply with the fourth core mandate, that states assess and work to eliminate their juvenile justice system's disproportionate contacts with minority youth.

"We're anticipating a reduction (in grant funding) in August or September," said Barbara Learmonth, state juvenile justice specialist. The award documents are received in those months, but the award actually begins Oct. 1.

The reduction is for fiscal year 2002 grants used in 2003. She said the reduction amounts to 20 percent for each for the core mandates with which the state does not comply.

On a more positive note, Learmonth said several grant programs are going forward, including the grant for the Kenai community care center and Title V grants that fund programs designed to prevent youth from beginning a life of crime.

Begich said the noncompliance to core mandates is not something new, but in the last three years, the state has developed a system that gives more accurate reporting.

"Our best guess is the (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) will look at us favorably because of the improved reporting and no cuts will be made in the first year," Begich said.

"Once we look at the absolute data coming in, we'll know if it's possible to come into compliance. I'd guess that would be in about a two-year period."

A facility expected to open on the peninsula this summer may improve compliance with two requirements.

The Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility, being built on Marathon Road in Kenai, will provide 10 rooms for detaining youth in a facility that is not an adult jail and that keeps them out of sight and sound of adult inmates.

The facility is for youth who are considered by the courts to be at risk to themselves or others or at risk of not showing up for required court appearances, according to Kim Smith, peninsula district supervisor of the Division of Juvenile Justice.

Smith said the objective when dealing with youth is always try to place them in less restrictive facilities.

Brenckle said she was motivated to join the advisory committee because of her involvement with the youth court on the peninsula.

"We need to do more," she said. "Our youth are the future of our state, and we need to raise the awareness (to the juvenile justice programs) and get funding.

"I'm committed to the kids. I've seen how well the youth court works."

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