Closing juvenile facilities sparks debate

By SAODAT ASANOVA –TAYLOR

Capital News Service

LANSING – Some lawmakers want to close all state juvenile justice facilities, but specialists who deal with young offenders strongly oppose such a move.

Lawmakers justify the change as a way to save dollars through privatizing the system.

The closings were not part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s recommended budget but were added during the House Appropriations Committee review.

The full House approved the provision and the budget is awaiting Senate action.

Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, said private facilities can provide the same service at lower costs than state facilities.

“It is very expensive. We are talking about only 90-100 kids. Privates can provide them with the same services at half the price,” he said.

Juveniles between the ages of 12 and 21 are placed in those facilities by a judge as punishment for committing a crime.

Agema said closing of all three facilities would save the state about $21.3 million.

Karen Tighe, president of the Michigan Probate Judges Association, said she is concerned about the ability of private companies to provide an environment that is of comparable quality to public facilities.

“About 70 percent of children in public facilities previously repeatedly failed placement in private facilities due to severe mental or emotional problems. The private facilities can’t handle or don’t want to handle them,” said Tighe, a judge in Bay County.

According to Tighe, private companies are profit–motivated and, as result, more likely to cut corners to increase profit margins that can negatively affect the quality of services.

“Privates have less capacity to deal with hard-to-handle kids. To expand their capacity means to hire new stuff. Traditionally, we have seen they hire younger people, who have less experience in dealing with severe cases,” she said.

The juvenile justice facilities are Bay Pines Center in Escanaba, W.J Maxey Boys Training School in Whitmore Lake and Shawono Center in Grayling.

“If they close a facility in the Upper Peninsula or anything close to the Michigan border, kids would have to travel hundreds of miles from their home community, which makes it difficult for parents to participate in their treatment,” Tighe said.

Nick Ciaramitaro, director of legislation and public policy at the Michigan American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said private and public juvenile facilities provide different services, and the promise of saving money is misleading.

AFSCME is the union representing employees at the facilities.

“We can’t compare apples to oranges. These facilities calculate the per diems differently. Public facilities deal with severe cases and provide intensive treatment, rehabilitation and medication differently,” he said.

According to Ciaramitaro, services shifted to private facilities still would carry the same expense for staff and adequate programs.

“We are talking about juveniles responsible for criminal conduct like murders and sexual conduct. Private facilities need to be well-equipped to handle them. We don’t want to see these kids end up on the street or in adult prisons,” he said.

Al Hart, director of the Police Academy at Northwestern Michigan College, said violent youth must receive proper services or they will never be able to function in society properly.

“Most of the kids placed in public facilities are as violent as adults. Whoever thought to make cuts to the state’s facilities doesn’t realize we are dealing with severe cases. Privatization will cut money but also cut professional staff, proper treatment and public protection,” he said.

Hart, who has worked with hard-to-handle juveniles, said without intensive treatment many failed, causing a threat to public safety.

“Most of them have severe mental problems and it is impossible to even transport them to court without the support of professional psychiatrists,” he said.

According to the Michigan Mental Health Association in Southfield, about 80 percent of the juveniles in public facilities have severe mental conditions.

Mark Reinstein, director of the association, said his organization is not against private juvenile facilities but it is important that legislators consider the practical side of closure.

“It is too much and too soon. There wasn’t any public discourse on this topic and I hope that we will hear more testimony to ensure the safe and appropriate work of juvenile correction facilities,” Reinstein said.

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