There’s no doubt that as the economy contracts and the belt tightens on federal grants, states are facing a massive budget crunch. As this recent article in the New York Times pointed out, the crisis hasn’t fully hit yet–in fact, states have “quietly maintained their spending at pre-crisis levels even as they warn of numerous cutbacks forced on them by declining tax revenues.” When the current fiscal year ends on July 1, however, “state and city spending will fall, along with employment—slowly at first and then quite noticeably after the next president takes office.” This has enormous implications, of course, across all sectors and the wider economy. Juvenile justice programs are no exception, and in this regard Tennessee may be a bellwether state.
A micro-story to prove a macro-point: the Paris Post-Intelligencer, a daily newspaper serving communities in the Tennessee Valley, ran this piece last week. It’s about the final days of A Sporting Chance, a prized and proven program run by the Henry County Juvenile Court, which offers sports training to troubled teens and teaches them a thing or two about discipline, accountability and leadership. The teens in the current group were showing real promise: “Five boxers from the club, along with coach Neely Owens and assistant coach Derrick Moon, traveled to Memphis Wednesday for the Title National Boxing Championships,” the paper explains.
On May 29, though, Juvenile Court Judge Vicki Snyder–whose office had received pre-approval for a grant to extend funding for the program–learned that the grant would not, in fact, be renewed. “The preventive programs that we were able to initiate will no longer be funded by the state, and these programs will cease,” Snyder said. “It saddens me deeply to watch this happen and not be able to do anything to prevent it.”
Another casualty of the budget crunch in Tennessee is the Carroll Academy, a school for at-risk youth run by the Carroll County Juvenile Center that provides education and treatment programming for grades six through twelve. As the local Jackson Sun reports, “This year, and for the last five years, the academy has received $858,512 from the state.” But, in the words of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, “a serious funding problem” for the upcoming fiscal year has caused the department to terminate the grant. Essentially, federal cuts to the state’s TennCare program, to the tune of $73 million for fiscal 2008, has hampered the ability of the DCS to continue pumping fiscal lifeblood into core programs like Carroll Academy.
“We are fighting to regain the funding” for the school, said Randy Hatch, director of Juvenile Court in Carroll County. “As it stands right now, we have enough funding to stay open through the summer term.” That’s a shame, because “the Carroll facility has been a success,” according to the local Jackson Sun. In an editorial June 3, the paper noted that the school “offers troubled youth what might be their last chance to lead a stable and productive life. Closing the academy would send these youth elsewhere and perhaps end treatment for some.”
Bear in mind, Carroll Academy does not serve the state’s most hardened young offenders. “Students who commit violent offenses, such as murder or rape, are sent to state custody,” Benton County Director of Schools Randall Robertson told the local Camden Chronicle. “Since 1994, students committing non-violent offenses have been sent to Carroll Academy in an effort to help them and allow them to continue their education. If Carroll Academy closes, those students would either have to be placed in state custody, with violent offenders, or expelled.”
What a sad scenario, and so avoidable. If it weren’t for the state’s harsh zero-tolerance policy, most of these students wouldn’t be enrolled at Carroll Academy in the first place; they’d be at school in their home communities–with red dots on their records, yes, but mainstreamed and working toward graduation. Now that Carroll Academy is closing, though, these low-level troublemakers are much more likely to wind up in a state juvenile facility–and, by extension, adult prison. The state all too readily pulled them out of school at a young age and steered them toward alternative programming, then pulled the rehab rug out from under them. That’s cruel, plain as day, and I’m afraid it’s not anomalous. I predict we’ll see more stories like this from other states once the new fiscal year gets rolling on July 1.