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Funding down, juvenile justice must evaluate, spend wisely

by Jordan Graham
March 11, 2010


When strapped for cash, spend wisely. 

Juvenile justice state advisory groups must adopt this mantra in response to $42 million in cuts to programs in President Barack Obama’s proposed 2011 budget, said representatives from several advocacy groups.  The decrease cuts 13 percent from the 2010 juvenile justice budget. 

In contrast, the proposed federal budget, released last month, stands to increase total national spending by $11.3 billion. 

“The thing we have to focus on is what dollars there are and how they’re deployed,” said George Timberlake, recently appointed chairman of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, a group that advises the governor on spending for the juvenile justice system. 

One way the budget encourages smarter spending is by investing more money into preventive practices and evaluative programs.  Many such programs aim to help children early on, tackling root problems that have been linked to juvenile delinquency. 

One program provides counseling for children exposed to domestic violence at an early age.  Another seeks to improve court services for children in the juvenile justice system, recommending regular re-evaluations for children so they are not unnecessarily left in detention centers. 

The Disproportionate Minority Contact Evaluation and Pilot Program aims to reverse the national trend of high rates of minority arrests and juvenile confinement.  The program’s budget is less than $1 million, but will use the meager funding to assess the success of different disproportionate minority contact programs around the country, looking to find a design that works and can be implemented nationally.

Some in the field argue that while spending on assessment is normally wise, disproportionate minority contact programs do not have the necessary data to support evaluation. 

“I am unaware of any branch or jurisdiction that does a good job of understanding, responding to and reducing disproportionality,” Timberlake said.  “We have been spending money on this issue for a while, we have learned a great deal, but I don’t think we have a set of responses that someone else can understand and copy.” 

Others argued there is a lack of criteria in federal spending, dollars not justified by any quantifiable assessment. 

According to several advocacy groups, it is assumed that Congress will earmark a large chunk of cash for the juvenile justice budget before it takes effect.  For the 2010 budget, Congress set aside $91 million for a project that tests and develops new programs on a smaller scale. It is likely to earmark a similar amount for the 2011 budget. 

Samantha Harvell, senior director of juvenile justice policy at First Focus, an advocacy group for children, said she thinks such spending is not always evaluated intelligently, and that the money could possibly be better spent. 

“Hopefully in theory, individual members of Congress who are proposing these programs for consideration are doing [the math],” Harvell said, “but I think there is variability from member to member.  [Spending] is definitely not controlled or moderated in any way.... There is no oversight of that.” 

It will likely be several months before the final 2011 budget is approved.  Meanwhile Congress will hold hearings for each federal agency, redistributing and altering the amounts of each budget request. 

The 2011 budget will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2010.