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Red flags raised over pending cut in juvenile probation

To some, the pending elimination of a juvenile probation job may sound like a reasonable move in these tight budgetary times.

After all, violent crime is rare among San Juans' teens, although the rate of arrest for non-violent crime is generally higher than the state average.

Nevertheless, county officials are searching high and low for $1 million or more in expenses to slice in order to balance next year's budget and stabilize county finances in years to come. By reducing the number of juvenile probation officers from two down to one, the county would save a little more than $56,000 a year, beginning in 2009.

But for local law enforcement officials, such a cut would not only be shortsighted, it would be a serious setback in the county's ability to reduce or prevent juvenile crime, keep children in school and keep troubled teens under watch but close to home.

Sheriff Bill Cumming on Tuesday said the effectiveness of the juvenile probation program can be attributed in large part to having two officers keeping tabs on at-risk children on the various islands over the past decade. Eliminating one would put the the entire program in jeopardy, he said.

"Without consistency, the system breaks," Cumming said. "It would be a huge loss and a mistake to pretend you could cut back from that and not see a reduction in service."

Furthermore, Cumming said, law enforcement officials nationwide expect the economic downturn that's gripped the country to result in a spike in stress-related crime. History shows, he said, that there are some trends which the San Juans can't avoid.

"When troubled times occur, and we are in troubled times, you can expect an increase in drug and alcohol use and domestic violence," he said. "And we're not immune to that."

With the County Council sharpening its budget ax, Cumming joined forces with Deputy Prosecutor Charlie Silverman and Juvenile Court Administrator Tom Kearney in trying to remove the position from the chopping block. It is one of 30 jobs, roughly equivalent to 20 full-time positions, which the budget proposal authored by county Administrator Pete Rose would eliminate. The county Parks and Public Health departments are facing similar cutbacks in programs and personnel.

As proposed, the job which would be cut from juvenile probation covers cases mostly on Lopez and Orcas islands. It accounts for roughly 14 percent of the Juvenile Court Services' annual budget and, if approved, would reduce the department to three full-time employees, including an administrative assistant.

Kearney, who also monitors cases, said the number and the type of cases managed by the department would have to be scaled back across-the-board.

"We can't just ignore two islands," he said. "We'll continue do emergencies services excellently, and we'll do probation services as well as we can, but everything after that, including monitoring, will have to be reduced. There's no two ways about it."

Silverman cautioned that more teens who get sideways with the law are likely to end up in a juvenile detention center on the mainland if the ability to provide "intensive supervision" is cut in half. He cited a half-dozen cases in which the probation officer assigned to Lopez and Orcas has acted as a "substitute parent" and been able to turn lives around thanks to intense oversight.

"If we didn't have the capacity for intensive supervision I don't know what would've happen with these kids," Silverman said.

At the headquarters of the Lopez Island School District, the pending cut is of great concern, Superintendent Bill Evans said.

Evans said the school benefits greatly by having a probation officer on the ground and in the community. He said the officer has proven invaluable, either by "informal" or formal means, in helping to prevent children from falling through the cracks.

The district will be hard-pressed in replacing what serves as a prevention program on its own.

"Proactive always beats the heck out of reactive," Evans said. "The idea is to catch kids before they fall over the line."

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