Idaho’s new get-tough approach to juvenile crime kicked into gear this month.
By shifting the whole program out of the state Department of Health and Welfare and into a new Department of Juvenile Corrections, Idaho has moved away from viewing juvenile crime as an illness to be treated, said Michael Johnson, the new department’s director.
The Legislature last session, in addition to creating the new department, also passed a batch of tougher laws on juvenile crime.
The new system is based on three principles: community protection, accountability, and teaching kids not to re-offend.
So far, it’s getting good reviews.
“We’ve always believed in those elements anyhow,” said Mike Jones, president of the Boise-based Idaho Youth Ranch, which contracts with the state to provide programs for troubled kids. “Some people believe that if we just get tough enough, and just lock ‘em all away, that that’ll solve all our problems with juvenile crime.” But, Jones said, “We have to let these kids out some day.”
The new system includes:
Money for counties to develop their own programs for dealing with lesser offenders. Kootenai County already has developed a work program for kids as a sentencing alternative to sending them to the juvenile detention center.
More intensive probation programs for juveniles, and an increased county probation role in supervising youngsters throughout their time in the system.
A “stepped” system in which offenders leaving incarceration at one of the state’s two juvenile corrections centers (St. Anthony and Nampa) are sent to residential programs in their community, and then into intensive probation, before they’re returned to society. Johnson said the old system often turned kids loose directly from incarceration.
An “observation and assessment” center where all juveniles entering the system would be evaluated before they are placed. They will stay at the center for 10 to 14 days. Johnson said a center is now operating at St. Anthony; he has a $2.5 million appropriation to build a new statewide center, probably in the Boise or Nampa area.
A focus throughout all the programs on finding ways to get the kids to fix what they’ve broken when they committed their crimes. That ranges from Kootenai County’s work program, where graffiti-scrawlers would clean up graffiti; to a Youth Ranch runaway who was required to meet with and apologize to the family from whom he had stolen an ATV. He also had to work to pay off the costs of overtime for those who searched for him.
Though the new system has only been in place for a few weeks, “We’re having impact right now statewide,” Johnson said. “Counties are developing new programs. There’s a great enthusiasm across the state right now. People are looking at the problem with new eyes.”
Conventional wisdom has it that serious juvenile crime is skyrocketing. Actually, Idaho’s rate of violent crime by juveniles hit its peak in 1990 when it slightly exceeded the national rate. It’s dropped since, and is back to its usual level of 20 percent to 30 percent below the national rate.
Yet, overall, the number of juveniles arrested in Idaho is rising steadily.
In the last gubernatorial election, both major candidates promised to pull juvenile justice out of Health and Welfare and create a new system.
Gov. Phil Batt, during a recent tour of the new department, said, “We knew that we had to spend more money on this problem.”
“I think we were doing a very poor job of dealing with the hardened criminals,” he said.
Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas said he thinks increased supervision of juveniles leaving state incarceration is “a very positive step.”
The new approach Idaho is taking is “a good one. I think it does take a load off Health and Welfare,” Douglas said. “But I hope the department stays adequately funded. That’s going to be the key.”
The new department has a $20.5 million budget and and 216 employees, counting 197 at the two corrections centers and a liaison in each of the state’s seven judicial districts. The 12 central-office employees were all hired from scratch; only a few came from Health and Welfare. Others had worked for the state Department of Law Enforcement or elsewhere.
Johnson was a teacher at an alternative high school in Rexburg, and a state legislator, before being named to head the new department.
“I would never have left the classroom in a million years if I didn’t believe that we could make an impact,” he said.
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