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Prevention over Detention? State audit finds - KTBS.com - Shreveport, LA News, Weather and Sports

Prevention over Detention? State audit finds Office of Juvenile Justice not properly monitoring programs

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LOUISIANA -

Louisiana is known not just as the Bayou State - but the world's prison capital - with the highest incarceration rate.  For years officials have been pushing prevention over detention for the youngest offenders. The Office of Juvenile Justice oversees and supports state programs for delinquent youth. A recent legislative audit found that the OJJ does not effectively monitor prevention and diversion contract providers.  Those contractors provide family therapy, violence and conflict resolution classes, and life skills training.  So it begs the questions - are troubled youth in our state getting the help they need - and are your tax dollars being used most effectively? 

"You know when I used to get calls from the school telling me he's doing this, he's doing that, I don't get those calls anymore."

Yolonda brazil is a single mother to seven children.  Her two youngest boys, now 16 and 17, Kelvin and Victor, graduated from Shreveport's "Swag Nation" - a program that works with young males to become upstanding members of society.

"There's someone out there, when I thought society had given up on my young men, so quick to put them in juvenile, so quick to put them on probation," she says, "This is a program that wants to turn them around, saying look, I'm not going to give up on you, you can be anything you want to be."

These are the types of programs being cut-off from state funds. When budgets are tight and programs must be cut, the first ones to go are those that are least effective, right?  Well, the recent audit found OJJ doesn't evaluate the effectiveness of these programs as required by law. The audit reads: "From fiscal year 2013 to fiscal year 2014, OJJ decreased its prevention and diversion contracts by 57% without evaluating which programs were the most effective."  And by "effective," this is what auditors mean: teens that finish their program, and don't wind up back in the Juvenile Justice System within the year.  But because many providers weren't finding out - or submitting the rates of re-entry for their graduates, when it came time for the state to cut funds - some programs with great results were slashed. For example, 6 of the 10 top performing providers were cut off from state funds- some with a zero percent rate of re-entry. And some of the providers with more than half of their graduates going back into the system were renewed.

But according to Director of Juvenile Services in Caddo Parish, Clay Walker, who works closely with the OJJ, there's more to this audit than it seems.

"The communications, the relationships they have with other contractors, I can't speak to, but with Caddo, they have a great deal of communication, and they have a lot of data. We collect the data on every single child that comes through, every piece of data we can think of, so we track everything and we do report it to the state pretty regularly, and so the decisions, the contracts that we have with the state are not arbitrarily cut.  There have been cuts, and we were not happy about that, I think it was a financial reality, there simply wasn't the money and there were going to be cuts.  But the cuts that we made locally here in caddo we did with a plan. It was over a three year span, a lot of meetings, a lot of discussions, a lot of talk about the effectiveness of programs, and more importantly talk of where alternative funding might come from," says Walker.  

Walker says the cuts by the state are not arbitrary when it comes to Caddo Parish, because people like himself, officials, and the local OJJ are very vocal.  What the report also doesn't outline are programs that only lost some state funding.  For example, the Caddo Adolescent Truancy Center and Misdemeanor Referral Center, under the Rutherford House, Inc. has lost funding over the years.  But, the city of Shreveport and Caddo Parish Commission have made up for lost funds.  The audit does only indicates which programs were fully cut from the state budget.  He says programs in Caddo such as Restorative Justice and Individualized Disposition Docket Court were cut, but are still helping kids because the parish now provides funding.  But not all programs have that fallback.

"Without that state funding a lot of the programs simply go under, they go belly up, they can't afford to pay the staff without that state funding, that's the concern," says Walker.
While both Walker and Caddo Parish Commissioner Michael Williams say they have an open line of communication with the local OJJ, and Caddo Parish provides 100% of reports to the state, it's clear the state wasn't pursuing the results and overseeing the programs they fund.  So state level cuts were being made without all the information.

"What I do know, the state office itself, they need to do better in having a system...with all the technology in America you would think they'd have a system put in place by now to make intelligent, wise decisions based on data throughout the whole region, throughout the whole state," says Commissioner Michael Walker, who works closely with the kids that go through the area's "Swag Nation."

"If the other contractors with the state are not doing their reports, and the state is not requiring those, that's a problem.  As a taxpayer, that's a problem," says Walker.  "What I think it speaks to is a lack of funding with the office of juvenile justice to have the staff to do the work. 

And that's where he says the problems stem from.  In 2012, the OJJ had prevention and diversion spots for over 10,000 youth, and in 2014, that number is down to about 2,500.  The money going toward programs dropped from about $4 million to less than $1 million.
Kids that I work with everyday, it is virtually a third world country, two miles from my own house, it is a disgrace, and so we are not spending enough money on these kids, says Walker.  "In a lot of ways, a lot of the politicians at the state level that are saying children are our future, we need to invest more in education, and in children, this is where the rubber meets the road.  This is the reality, and they're cutting it.  If these were wealthy kids, kids that had political voice, and political connections, they wouldn't be cut.  These are poor people that are getting cut, and that's why they're getting cut, and that's the problem."

The audit made several recommendations to the OJJ; including requiring providers to submit information that would allow them to calculate the re-entry rate, and create a system to evaluate services that are most effective to figure out what should be renewed. The OJJ agreed with all recommendations and findings, and said it already is taking steps to address many of the concerns.

It's important to note that when the state pulls its funding from these programs - the cities and parishes must come up with the money to keep the programs afloat, as is the case with caddo parish.  While some of the programs lost all or some state funding, the caddo commission, and individual cities are funding them. That means they can't use that money to fund other parish priorities.

It's also worth noting that which budget cuts are a large source of the lack of funds for OJJ programs - it's not the only contributing factor.  Louisiana's move toward providing youth services through the Coordinated System of Care also plays a role.

The full report can be found here.

The history of the Juvenile Justice System in Louisiana can be found here.

 

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