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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Legislators Take Off The Kid Gloves New Bills Seek Accountability, Not Rehab, For Juvenile Justice System

Rehabilitation is out; accountability is in.

Or so say state lawmakers, who are proposing major changes in the way the state treats young criminals. Juvenile crime has “outrun our ability to cope with some juveniles,” said Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo.

Today, Senate lawmakers are scheduled to discuss 10 bills to toughen juvenile justice. Among other things, the bills would lengthen sentences and allow courts to charge parents for the cost of holding their children in a detention center.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee introduced a bill to strip responsibility for juvenile corrections away from the state Department of Health and Welfare. Instead, the bill would create a new Department of Juvenile Corrections.

“I think it’s an absolute necessity. Idaho Health and Welfare simply isn’t set up to deal with this. They don’t have the manpower, knowledge or resources to command juvenile justice,” said Gary Stamper of Coeur d’Alene. Stamper is acting secretary of the Kootenai County Youth Task Force, a group pushing for quicker juvenile justice.

Cost of the proposal hasn’t been established. The state Division of Financial Management has estimated $2 million.

Six years ago, the Idaho Legislature passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which emphasized treatment and rehabilitation, assigning welfare caseworkers to supervise young offenders after their release. Tuesday’s House bill would assign county probation officers instead, and give counties grants to pay for the extra workload.

“Under the current statute, it deals a lot with rehabilitation. If you really want to rehabilitate a young person, you hold them accountable,” said Jeff Noland, an attorney for the House Interim Committee on Juvenile Justice, which drafted Tuesday’s bill.

Noland, an Ada County deputy prosecutor, said the new bill amounts to a sea of change in philosophy. Instead of a “medical model” stressing treatment, he said, the system would focus on community protection, accountability and developing a good environment for the released juvenile offender to return to.

Throughout the summer and fall, the interim committee held 16 hearings statewide. What they heard, Nolan said, was that Health and Welfare was too soft on young offenders.

“We heard some of those same comments from the public and officials,” said Roseanne Hardin, deputy administrator for Health and Welfare’s Division of Family and Community Services. The division handles juvenile corrections.

But she said the department was simply carrying out the goals of the 1989 law.

Darrington, who is chairman of the Judiciary and Rules Committee, agreed, but said the testimony suggests the public has lost faith in the department’s ability to handle juvenile justice.

“We think that people don’t think they have credibility,” he said.

In October, Health and Welfare unveiled its own $28 million proposal to battle juvenile crime. Gov. Phil Batt didn’t include the proposal in his budget.

Hardin said her department has no intention of fighting the governor, who supervises state departments including Health and Welfare. “The chief concern of this agency is public safety,” she said.

At the Region One juvenile detention center in Coeur d’Alene, director Al Friesen said the current system works pretty well.

“It’s easy to sit back and say ‘let’s get tougher,”’ Friesen said.

Nonetheless, he supports the proposal to establish a separate department of juvenile corrections. A smaller department, he said, would be faster to respond to problems.

Stamper agreed.

“I don’t think we need to get tougher,” he said. “We need to get swifter.”