If you always do what you’ve always done you can’t be too surprised when you always get what you always got. It’s therefore discouraging to see the Laramie County commissioners headed down a familiar old road again…a road with the same dead end it has always had.
The commissioners acted boldly in deciding to build a juvenile detention center. There probably should have been more discussion about the wisdom of building a new facility. If you build it the courts will fill it and Wyoming already places more children in detention than any state in the Union. Knowing that, it is regretful there was not a clearer plan for funding the operation of the center. Of course, the availability of funding from the much maligned stimulus made the building decision a bit easier.
At the time the commissioners seemed clear that county control over would be preferable. Commissioner Gay Woodhouse was quoted as saying a county facility will give the county more control over costs. Commissioner Diane Humphrey said it was a "huge thing for our county to be in charge of our juveniles."
Laramie County Sheriff Danny Glick said his office could do a good job of running the facility for about $2.6 million a year. Apparently sticker shock caused the commissioners to seek lower-cost alternatives from the private sector. What corners will be cut in order to lower the actual cost of doing this the right way?
We’ve been there, done that and juveniles and their families have paid a price. There are many old adages that quickly come to mind. “Pay me now or pay me later.” “You get what you pay for.”
The commissioners need to decide what it is they want to accomplish before deciding how much they want to spend. Costs can always be reduced especially if expectations for outcomes are likewise reduced. There’s little doubt someone in the private sector will give a lower bid. However, if the real goal is to create a center that meets the complicated needs of children and families, looking for the lowest bid won’t achieve the result. What is it about our experience with Frontier Corrections that the county commissioners don’t remember? Costs accelerated while outcomes plummeted. Neither the county nor the state could exercise reasonable oversight and accountability was not more than a wistful thought.
It wasn’t because the private provider didn’t care. There was no questioning their dedication to children. But if the first concern is cost there’s an inevitable sacrifice of quality. If, on the other hand, the first and highest concern is providing quality services and meaningful outcomes for those children who enter the juvenile justice system, the commissioners should establish funding priorities to achieve that goal.
One of the reasons Wyoming’s juvenile justice system has been dysfunctional is decision makers have always started with the goal of cutting costs. Perhaps this decision affords the commissioners a last opportunity to start instead with the science. The research is crystal clear. The earlier in life a child experiences detention, the more likely that child is to enter the adult detention system. Early and comprehensive home-based services are far more effective. Detention as a last resort must be accompanied by mental and physical health as well as educational services.
According to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, “Because juveniles are developmentally and socially different from adults, they are more likely to be rehabilitated by carefully designed and tested treatment programs than by a purely punishment-based sanction system. Young people who break the law must be held accountable for the consequences of their illegal behavior by a legal system that balances the protection of the community, the developmentally appropriate correction of juveniles who violate the law, and the protection of the legitimate rights of the victims of juvenile crime.”
The question is not so much what does that cost but rather, what is that worth?