The state Department of Juvenile Justice is locking up fewer teenagers – which is why it needs more money, agency officials told lawmakers Thursday.
Since 2002, the number of juvenile cases has dropped by an average of 4.5 percent a year, or 40.8 percent overall. The number of teenagers charged with violent or serious offenses is at a 20-year low, falling 62 percent since 1995, according to the agency’s annual report.
As a result, Juvenile Justice is losing money. Since 2008, it has lost $16 million in federal and other funds because most of that money was tied directly to the number of teenagers the agency is holding behind bars. The fewer people the agency arrests and incarcerates, the less money it gets.
The agency now incarcerates 102 juveniles as it places more emphasis on non-jail options, director Margaret Barber told the House Ways and Means law enforcement subcommittee on Thursday. Those options include group homes and wilderness camps – cheaper options than jail but alternatives that still need funding.
Barber says the agency has been living off of its savings for the past few years, but it won’t be able to do that next year. That is why Barber formally asked House budget writers Thursday for an extra $9.2 million in recurring money to help keep the agency going.
“We are victims of our success – but we would rather be successful,” Barber told the House Ways and Means law enforcement subcommittee.
Barber said she needs the money to pay for costs associated with medical care, clothing, hygiene, utilities and fuel. She also is asking for $2.3 million to reopen 23 teen after-school centers that focus on job preparation.
But it could be difficult for Barber to get more money.
Last year, lawmakers had an extra $1.4 billion to spend – a windfall that led to big budget increases for most state agencies. This year, legislators only have an extra $190 million in recurring money.
But state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of the law enforcement subcommittee, said giving more money to Juvenile Justice is important.
“The loss of those monies and the effects that it will have on the programs is very concerning to me as we enter this budget process,” Pitts said. “I feel strongly that since ... that is where our criminals are in kindergarten, we need to continue to address the progress (the agency) has made with appropriate funding.”