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Cutting our Future: Juvenile Justice

Every two years, state agencies in Nebraska publish a biennial budget proposal outlining potential priorities for funding and budget cuts. This year, in light of projected reductions in state revenue receipts, Governor Ricketts has asked state agencies to identify general fund budget cuts amounting to 8 percent in laying out a 2017-2019 budget. Our state investment in systems that support children have a lasting and widespread effect on our future and our community. Because of this, Voices for Children in Nebraska reviews budget proposals issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to explore the impact that cuts will have on the well-being of children in our state.

The proposed changes in funding for programs that have been incredibly beneficial to children is concerning to us at Voices for Children. In this post in our series on the DHHS proposed budget, we will examine the consequences of budget alterations on Nebraska’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers.

In contrast to most budget modifications proposed, DHHS is requesting increased rather than decreased funding for Nebraska’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers (YRTCs).  The increased funding would go toward hiring more staff, which would allow the facilities to come into compliance with federal regulations concerning staff to youth ratios and, more importantly, provide better and more individualized care for youth.

While Voices supports this effort to better serve youth in the YRTCs, we remain concerned that Nebraska’s YRTCs are not the right model to effectively treat youth in need of intensive intervention. We would recommend that in conjunction with any increase in funding to YRTCs, the question must be asked whether they are adequately serving the youth placed there — or could, given the funding increase. Currently, the only tracked measure of success for the YRTCs is the percent of youth returning to the facility within the next 12 months. High rates of return indicate that Nebraska’s YRTCs are not successful in the long-term, as many youth return to the facility within a year. Conversely, other measures of the facilities’ success or failure, such as successful completion of probation or information on further legal trouble, are not currently tracked, making it difficult to fully determine whether the YRTCs are succeeding in their mission to rehabilitate Nebraska youth. Do youth leave the YRTCs better prepared to complete high school and pursue higher education?  Do they refrain from committing new crimes and avoid further incarceration after YRTC?  We just don’t know, and these are $18 million dollar questions.

We maintain that national research and best practices suggest Nebraska’s youth would be better served with a statewide network of small, regional facilities with lower staff/child ratios, where youth could receive treatment closer to home and family. Investing our state’s money in a regional model instead of funding two large-scale facilities would allow youth to remain in their communities, making the transition in and out of treatment smoother. That said, if reinvesting our state funding in a regional system is not feasible this year, we do support increasing staff to better serve youth in the current YRTCs, but believe the investment should come with a requirement that both facilities implement accountability measures and regular evaluations to track both short- and long-term outcomes for youth served. This could be accomplished, for instance, by partnering with one of Nebraska’s universities to implement an evaluation on the evidence-based-practice spectrum: identifying what the facility’s goals and purpose are, what steps are being taken to meet those goals, what markers of success or failure can and should be tracked, and monitoring those markers to ascertain whether goals are being met.

When the legislature begins to make its final budget cuts, lawmakers need to keep children’s interests in mind. When it comes to juvenile justice, up front investment in proven treatment methods saves significant taxpayer dollars downstream through reduced recidivism. As long as the YRTCs remain part of our state’s spectrum of care for youth, we need to ensure that they are structured and funded to provide the best and most effective treatment programming. If our facilities are not providing effective treatment, we need to alter existing programs or create new ones to provide our youth with the best possible future.

The budget is a complicated document and we’re sure to miss issues that are important to some of our readers.  If you’re concerned about a particular proposed cut in the budget, let us know in the comments below.  We may not cover everything on our blog, but we still want to know what challenges you see in the upcoming budget. If you are concerned about any of the cuts outlined above we urge you to contact your senator about your concerns before the legislature begins to decide on the final budget in January.

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