Pay now or pay later: Program cuts will hurt |

Pay now or pay later: Program cuts will hurt

Garfield County and the Roaring Fork Valley have been living with a false sense of security regarding juvenile crime, thanks to YouthZone’s juvenile diversion program.

Now, state budget cuts have made it impossible for the nonprofit agency to continue the program. We will soon see – and pay for – the results.

We are not suggesting that YouthZone has eradicated juvenile crime. The communities still suffer auto break-ins, broken windows and graffiti.

But anyone who has followed the news in other areas can tell that the rate of juvenile crime here is far lower, and far less serious, than elsewhere.

YouthZone, formerly known as Garfield Youth Services, has quietly put a damper on juvenile crime by working with kids from the moment they get into trouble. The compliance rate is high and the re-offense rate is low.

In other words, most kids and their families respond positively to the help they get from YouthZone counselors and programs, and kids are able to turn their lives in another direction.

This work has largely been funded by the state government. And the state, which was rolling in dough as recently as 2000, is now forced to cut its spending.

No cuts are easy, but Gov. Owens’ decision to ax juvenile diversion programs statewide from the 2002-03 budget will prove particularly painful, we predict.

Now, kids who get arrested for crimes will go directly into the court system, where they will face punishment instead of rehabilitation. Adding these cases will further overload the courts, district attorney and public defender’s offices, and probation departments.

But the worst part is that kids in trouble are unlikely to get the up-front attention needed to reform their behavior before it becomes ingrained and expected. Given the opportunity, contends YouthZone director Debbie Wilde, they will find themselves in a spiral of crime that gets more serious at every turn.

Crime costs money: in losses and injuries, in criminal investigation and prosecution, and for incarceration or probation.

It will cost our communities far more to deal with the consequences of increased juvenile crime than it would to nip that criminal activity in the bud through YouthZone’s effective programs.

YouthZone has found a way to salvage part of its diversion program. Cities and towns already give the agency funds to deal with kids who come into the municipal court system on misdemeanor charges. Wilde has suggested that these funds be used to pay for YouthZone diversion services for kids from low income families, as a scholarship, if you will.

Middle and upper income families will be asked to shell out the money, about $200 to $735, to pay for their kids’ diversion services.

Wilde said parents swallow hard, and then get out their checkbooks.

But this user-pay approach will only be used for kids cited in municipal court.

For teens accused of more serious crimes, felonies or multiple misdemeanors, there is no funding safety net.

Wilde said keeping the diversion program alive for kids involved in more serious crime would cost about $150,000 a year, assuming a reasonable level of co-payment by families that can afford it.

The communities that YouthZone serves, from Aspen to Glenwood Springs to Parachute to Meeker, should consider the real costs and consequences of increased juvenile crime. If the state government can’t provide the funding, then it is time for business and government to provide it instead.

Because if we don’t pay now, we will pay a lot more later.

– Heather McGregor, Managing Editor

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