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Smaller counties brace for influx of youth offenders from state

YUMA – On any given day, youths occupy about 55 of the 80 beds available at the Yuma County Juvenile Justice Center, staying an average of about two weeks.

Officials say the facility would burst at the seams if Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal to close the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections goes through. Under that plan, an additional 50 high-risk juvenile offenders would head back here.

County Administrator Robert Pickels said that in addition an estimated $1 million more in personnel costs the facility’s space constraints could force lower-risk offenders back into the community.

“This is something that we hate to have to consider,” Pickels said.

And then there’s an estimated $500,000 in additional services those youths would require, such as education, treatment for substance abuse and medical and mental health care.

Craig Sullivan, executive director of County Supervisors Association of Arizona, said the burden would fall hardest on smaller counties, which lack easy access to those who provide the kinds of services juvenile offenders now get through the state.

“There’s a real potential for disaster,” Sullivan said. “We’ve been trying to impress upon the Legislature the significant damage this is going to have.”

Gila County would have to recruit people from elsewhere or contract with neighboring counties to provide those services, said John Nelson, the county’s finance manager.

“Either way, people would have to relocate or commute, which is going to cost us even more money,” he said.

Part of the governor’s plan to close a massive deficit projected for fiscal 2011, the move would cut $67 million in state costs. It would eliminate roughly 900 corrections employees and shut down the state’s three remaining facilities, which currently house about 500 juveniles. The state shut down its fourth facility and laid off 200 employees last month.

“This is an expense that we simply don’t have the funds for anymore,” said Paul Senseman, Brewer’s director of communications. “We’ve actually been impressed by the reception it’s received (in the Legislature) so far.”

Senseman said a commission would be set up to help each county in the transition process, especially for those that don’t have enough room immediately or lack their own juvenile facilities.

He said the shift would enable youths to be closer to their families and noted that counties already play a big role in juvenile corrections.

But Jolene Hefner, deputy director of the Yuma County Juvenile Justice Center, said there’s a good reason why counties have separate juvenile facilities from the state.

“Our programs are geared toward shorter lengths of stays,” said Hefner, who noted that the average length of time for juveniles at state facilities is between six and 12 months.

She also said her county would have to keep high-risk offenders separate from the lower-risk ones. On top of having to hire more staff, officials would be left scrambling to find funding for parole officers, which the state currently provides.

Andrew Gould, the presiding Superior Court judge in Yuma County, said one of the biggest problem he sees is local officials not being able to provide the quality of services the state can give youth offenders.

“Without them, you can’t serve the goal of juvenile court, which is rehabilitation,” he said.

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