SALEM, Ore. - Due to budget cuts, the Oregon Youth Authority is getting ready to release dozens of juvenile offenders from secure lock-ups into halfway homes. The agency says there's nothing to worry about. But not everyone's so sure.
It's graduation day for 17-year-old Ricky. This isn't a high school commencement. It's a treatment program for teenage criminals.
Ricky is a juvenile offender. That's why we're not using his last name. He got in trouble for, among other things, drug use and property crimes.
But his parole officer says he's on the right track now. Ricky's packed his bags and is moving into a less restrictive setting: a group home in Salem.
Transitions like this happen all the time for kids in the Oregon Youth Authority's control. But the pace of moving youth into group homes like this one will accelerate next month. That's because budget cuts are forcing the agency to move 50 to 60 juvenile offenders from behind bars into community housing.
"Some of these youth aren't ready to go," says Christine Bennett, Ricky's parole officer.
She says while Ricky is what she calls a "rock star," other youth she works with would be better off locked up.
"It becomes 'we gotta do it now, we just gotta put them where we can,' rather than taking a little extra time to be graceful and mindful and have them really invest in the outcome," Bennett says.
The Oregon Youth Authority is facing a September 30th deadline to reduce the number of inmates in youth prisons. Spokeswoman Ann Snyder says decisions about who gets transferred into group homes and who has to stay behind bars will be made deliberately.
"Fundamentally we're a public safety agency," she says. "We're going to take every precaution to make sure that the public is protected."
The upheaval at the Youth Authority isn't limited to the youth. Snyder says the agency is laying off 119 people.
Republican Representative Greg Smith was on the budget sub-committee that crafted the spending cuts. He says the panel had a limited amount of money to spread between the Youth Authority and other public safety agencies.
"There were huge competing interests for those general fund dollars both from education and human services, but then also from state police, the Department of Corrections," Smith says. "There was a lot of competing interests."
Back in Salem, Ricky, his parole officer and the group home leader are talking over the ground rules of his new living quarters. Ricky has landed a construction job so he won't be around for most of the day.
If Ricky stays on the straight and narrow, he'll be free of these kinds of restrictions sometime this fall.
I asked him what he thinks about the upcoming accelerated transition of nearly 60 juvenile offenders into community housing, where they'll no longer be under lock and key.
"For the kids that are being successful and are already on the right track in life, it's kind of a bummer to keep them in there," Ricky says. "So I think it's a good thing. But then again I think it's a bad thing. If a kid's just faking it, you know, he's going to get out and act stupid."
For now, there should be plenty of beds in group homes available for the transitioning youth. While lawmakers ramped down the number of so-called "close-custody" beds, they beefed up the number of slots available in community housing.
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