City may pull funding for youth-run court

rshinohara@adn.comOctober 20, 2012 

— Anchorage Youth Court, where youthful offenders such as shoplifters, vandals or minor drug offenders can go to be judged by kids their own age instead of being sent through the regular juvenile justice system, could lose its biggest funding source: the city of Anchorage.

With money tight, the administration of Mayor Dan Sullivan has proposed eliminating the city's $205,000 annual contribution to the program in the 2013 city budget.

Anchorage Assemblyman Dick Traini says he'll fight to get the money reinstated.

"This one is vital," Traini said. "It should be as important as funding the law department. This keeps kids from getting on the wrong path."

Youth Court supporters say they'll have people testifying at two upcoming city budget hearings at the Assembly, on Tuesday and Oct. 30.

Mayor Dan Sullivan said every department had to find savings, with anticipated spending next year outpacing expected revenues.

Youth Court is paid for through the city Department of Health and Human Services.

"Health and Human Services had to look at what is our primary mission," he said.

Youth Court didn't fit in the agency's reduced spending plan, he said.

Sullivan said one thought is that the private sector could step up and contribute more to Youth Court.

But he also said the city has a little more taxing capacity than his 2013 spending plan would use, and he wouldn't be opposed if the Assembly wants to add money for Youth Court.

"It wouldn't be enough to fully restore their funding," he said. If Youth Court stays in the budget, he would also like to move it to a different department such as the Department of Law.

The city contributes $115,000 to Youth Court -- 38 percent of the program's budget -- and $90,000 to Volunteers of America.

Volunteers of America, a youth services organization, provides a sentencing coordinator who follows up and monitors young people after they are sentenced in youth court and reports back to state juvenile authorities.

The $90,000 Volunteers of America gets also pays for a part-time staffer who provides similar services for another program for kids charged with slightly more serious offenses, said Glen Kratochvil of the organization.

Youth Court is a diversion program for about 300 young misdemeanor offenders per year, who generally plead no contest to charges. Before the city began contributing in the 1995, the program could handle only 15 to 20 cases a year.

"We do this because nobody in Anchorage works with these youthful offenders, preventing them from re-offending," said Kratochvil. "We're intervening, making sure they tell their friends, 'Hey, somebody's watching, and there are consequences.' "

Typical sentences include community service, an essay and often classes such as one on how to withstand peer pressure and think for yourself, Kratochvil said.

There are not ready sources of funding to replace the city money, he said.

And it wouldn't be easy to re-start the program if it had to quit operating for a period, he said. There are a lot of in-kind donations, he said.

"Restarting all this from scratch would cost a whole lot more than $200,000."

Youth Court board member Nelson Page said he doesn't know what the organization will do if it loses city money.

"It comes as a shock," he said. "I don't think the program will go away. It will just be substantially diminished."

Anchorage Youth Court receives money from the state Division of Juvenile Justice, United Way of Anchorage, the Anchorage Bar Association and many other individuals and groups, but the city is the only contributor that gives more than $100,000.

Traini said the city could continue its $205,000 annual contribution with money that's expected to be left over from the 2012 budget, or by raising taxes to the maximum amount allowed under the city's tax cap.

Traini said he was instrumental in pushing for city money to expand Youth Court in the 1990s.

Assemblyman Patrick Flynn also said he hopes the city can find money to continue its contribution.

Assemblymen Chris Birch and Adam Trombley said they haven't made up their minds.

Birch said he's receptive to the idea of offering partial funding, what he called transition money.

Trombley said he sees Youth Court as a component of public safety. "I certainly see the need for it and the value of it."

A McDowell Group report in 2010 for the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice found that Alaska youth courts had a six-month recidivism rate of 4 percent for cases handled during the prior three fiscal years. Over one to two years, the rates rise to about 20 percent, the study says.

Some 340 students have been trained and volunteer as judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, bailiffs and clerks, said Whitney Sutton, Anchorage Youth Court's executive director.

Youth court gets low rent for its headquarters across from the court buildings and gets to use regular courtrooms in the Boney Courthouse for its sentencing hearings.

A part-time coordinator schedules all the student volunteers, making sure the offenders get judges and lawyers they don't know.

A full-time lawyer advises on legal matters, talks to all parties to a case, and teaches classes that prepare young people to take on responsibilities in youth court.

Sutton is full-time, and there are two other part-time office workers, she said.

"It's a big organization," said Bradley Bourdon, a Grace Christian School senior and co-president of Anchorage Youth Court. "It takes a lot to keep that running."

Bourdon noted that city budget papers describe the program as teaching kids about the legal system.

It offers legal training and gives young people opportunities for public speaking and decision-making.

But the main goal is to help Alaska youths, said Bourdon.

"Mainly we're getting through to our defendants."

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.

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