Juvenile justice system getting needed emphasis

By the Tri-City HeraldNovember 13, 2012 

In a better world, the juvenile justice center would house a system for showing young people in our community the error of their ways and teaching them a lesson or two along the way.

Often lessons are learned through paying the consequences of our actions. Most of us have seen a parent giving up on following through with consequences for bad behavior, and the result is often a child with some bratty tendencies that we find a little annoying.

But when we're talking about law-breaking juveniles, we expect some more diligent discipline -- some attempt to redeem their young lives before it's too late.

Unfortunately, budget cuts made that an impossibility at the packed Benton-Frankin Juvenile Justice Center. Difficult decisions were being made daily about which offenders to set free early so a bed could be made available for an even more deserving law-breaker.

And sometimes those tough decisions had consequences of their own, with the kid who had been set free committing additional crimes when he or she should still have been serving a sentence.

The situation became so ridiculous that the habitual young criminals were making bets as to whether they'd actually serve time and making lists of who they thought would be released early.

Some were gambling that what they did would not result in any time in the detention center because of over-crowding at the 35-bed facility, making a mockery of any meter of justice.

And that was a horrible lesson to be teaching young people who are already far down the wrong path. These kids may be making dumb decisions, but they often are experts on the criminal justice system. They quickly saw the overcrowded detention center worked to their advantage.

The problem hit crisis mode in August, with judges making decisions daily on who should stay in detention and serve their time and who should be let free without fulfilling their sentences.

Officials went to Benton and Franklin county commissioners and outlined the problem.

Both sets of commissioners recognized the need for reform and committed funds to hire three more full-time juvenile justice officers and to open up at least 15 more beds at the facility.

Benton County will cover about 68 percent of the center's 2013 budget, contributing about $4 million. Franklin County will contribute $1.83 million, with the split determined by the population of juveniles in either county.

Franklin County will be able to tap into its 0.3 percent public safety sales tax to help off-set the costs. It will be more difficult for Benton County to find the money as it faces a $2.7 million budget shortfall, but commissioners are committed to the program.

As they should be. In August, 44 kids left the center early. Together, those teens had 18 violent crimes, 39 property-related felonies, 199 misdemeanors, 196 probation violations and 141 warrants. Those are the kind of kids who should serve their full sentences.

It had gotten so bad that administrators were making appointments for kids to come back and serve their time weeks later or in daily increments. Serving a day here and there is hardly a punishment. And the kids surely felt they had gotten one over on the system.

That's the wrong message.

Young people who make bad choices need counseling and consequences. We need to put them back on the right path whenever possible. But that's hard to do without the right tools at hand.

Detention is just one component of the juvenile justice system, but it's key to the overall program. And as much as we'd like to say every kid can correct behavior through learning better ways, some are already ingrained in a culture of crime. And those particularly need to be kept off the streets for the safety of our community.

We're glad the commissioners see the importance of correcting our community's juvenile justice program. It has been a long time coming and a vital decision for the well-being of the region.

Let's hope the grown-ups who control the purse strings have learned their lesson and that the teens who have mocked the system will learn some of their own.

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