Counseling, probation replace punishment

The juvenile justice system in South Dakota transformed over the past six years following the death of a teenager girl at a state-run boot camp that touched off a heated debate over how to handle young offenders.
State officials are keeping more troubled teens in local programs and sending many of the hard-core offenders out of state. There are a third fewer new kids coming into the corrections system each year and the mothballed juvenile prison at Plankinton still sits empty.
The change in philosophy toward intensive probation and counseling rather than incarceration, has drawn praise from longtime critics of the system. But it's also meant more money from taxpayers' pockets.

Since 1999, the amount of money the state spends to oversee the teens has nearly doubled to about $29 million this year.
Some lawmakers wonder why, with the rising costs, corrections officials don't consider reopening the State Training School in Plankinton, the former home of a boot camp and prison. The state says the local programs have decreased the numbers to the point where the training school isn't necessary and the extra money is worth it in the long run.
“I think we are investing in youth and we won't be paying for them in the adult system,” said Doug Herman, director of juvenile services for the South Dakota Department of Corrections.

Keeping kids at home
The key is to honestly assess what the young person's problems are and then target those issues, said Herman. When that is done, it makes it less likely the teen will reoffend and come back into the system as adults, he said.
But it also means they might need therapy and treatment in programs not run by the state, which can cost more. Out-of-state placements can run as high as $350 a day compared to the $120 a day for in-state programs.
Susan Randell was a vocal opponent of the juvenile corrections program in the past. Today, the state is more interested in keeping young people at home and offering counseling and rehabilitation rather than punishment, she said.
“The tone of it was very punitive,” she said. “We're still talking about youth. They are not yet adults. We are talking about rehabilitation. That doesn't mean we coddle them. I don't think these programs coddle them.”

The juvenile justice issue became personal for Amy Sims after a nightmarish weekend when her daughter, Haily, left with friends and didn't come back.
Haily had already been in trouble – skipping school, missing curfew and not coming home.
“I called friends and I drove around,” said Amy Sims of Sioux Falls. “I went crazy. You don't know if they are alive or dead.”
Sims decided she needed help and filed a Child in Need of Supervision petition with local law enforcement. That meant her daughter would enter the juvenile justice program in South Dakota. It also meant giving up some control of her daughter as she appeared in court, was sentenced and began probation and counseling through Lutheran Social Services.
It worked for the Sims. Amy said she's seen huge changes in her daughter. Haily says she's learned to communicate with her mom and feels like the counseling sessions have showed that not all the problems lie with her.
She has since cut ties with some of her former friends.

“I think about my decisions more. I think of what the consequences are,” Haily said. “I just wanted to be with my friends. Their parents would let them do whatever they wanted to do and I had to stay here.”

Fewer boot camps
Parents who have had their children in juvenile corrections have not always had that positive response.
Former Gov. Bill Janklow oversaw the development of the juvenile prison and military-style boot camps in the mid-1990s. The system came under stiff criticism in 1999 following the death of 14-year-old Gina Score who died after a forced run as an inmate of the girls boot camp program at Plankinton.
Following that death came charges that children were being incarcerated for minor offenses and being subjected to military-style discipline that went too far. Legal action against some former employees at the school and a lawsuit filed by some former inmates followed. Those suits have all been settled.
In 2001 with a decrease in the number of juveniles being placed with the Department of Corrections, Janklow closed the 113-year-old State Training School.

Under current Gov. Mike Rounds, the Corrections Department has moved toward the intensive probation programs and contracts with private agencies. Those programs have the added benefit of qualifying for federal funds.
Margaret Gramkow, who organized Parents Who Care, an advocacy group for parents with children in the corrections center at that time, said the system is better than it was. But she and others wish the state would try harder to keep families together.
“They're devastated that their kids are taken away and they wonder what they can do,” she said, referring to parents who still call her for advice. “I know a lot of parents who have bent over backwards and they still don't get their child back. Maybe family life isn't perfect, but it's their home. I always thought the motive was to keep families together.”

Seeking oversight
While her group isn't as active as it once was, Gramkow said juvenile corrections still needs a watchdog. “We have to make sure things never get out of hand like they did before.”
Judges say they don't want to take youngsters out of their home but there are times when that's what is best for the child.
Judge Timothy Jones, of the Fourth Judicial Circuit in western South Dakota, said he likes intensive probation in which a probation officer is available to check on the youngster several times a day to see that they are in school and not getting in trouble.
But that is not always an option. Sometimes children have to be sent away from home because it's not safe for them to stay there.
“The Department of Corrections is supposed to be the last resort,” said Judge Arthur Rusch of the First Judicial Circuit in Vermillion. “We're seeing more kids who are throw away kids. You feel they would be better off in the Department of Corrections. I don't know if kids come out of these places better off. They pick up bad habits, just like we worry about adults doing in jail.”

Changing risk factors
The Department of Corrections deals with approximately 1,000 young people under its jurisdiction at any one time.
The number of new juveniles sentenced to the Department of Corrections has dropped since the fiscal year 1998 when it hit 528. Last year there were 353 juveniles sentenced to corrections.
Corrections Secretary Tim Reisch said the first choice of his department is to find a program for a youngster so they can remain in their community or in South Dakota. The state operates several programs itself and also places young people with 20 different private agencies in South Dakota.
It also relies on 10 programs in state including Iowa, Minnesota, Wyoming and Montana and in rare cases Utah and Colorado. Herman said normally about 25 to 30 young people are placed out of state.
Herman said the state has adopted so-called “experience-based practices,” a philosophy that calls for understanding risks and needs of the young person, the peer group they associate with, their educational level, there ability to be employed and how they think about situations.

The theory is that if you change those factors you can change a child.
“It's a combination of not just punishment, but also treatment,” he said. “You want kids to behave but because they choose to behave. Unfortunately, many of the kids who come into our system have never had this instruction.”

Prevention and treatment
Herman said the boot camp approach – still operated for boys along with several other programs near Custer – works for some young offenders. “There's a lot of advantages to having a very structured environment,” he said. “The military model serves to provide an environment where you can deliver the five or six things that prove effective.”
Kelly Bass, a counselor at Lutheran Social Services, said other approaches can also prove effective with young offenders. Bass ran the program the Sims participated in. It included seven weeks of counseling with 46 juvenile offenders and their families.
The youth and parents met separately for most of the sessions and talked about the situations that eventually lead to the child into the court system.
“This is more of a prevention program to keep those kids out of a facility,” he said. Six months after the program 41 percent of the youngsters had not reoffended and just five of the kids had eventually been turned over to the Department of Corrections.
“For us that's a success,” he said. “We're trying to improve the whole family dynamic. There's a shift to seeing kids get as much opportunity in our community before something real restrictive is used.”

The program was funded with a $40,000 grant from the South Dakota Coalition for Children. The program was not funded for a second year, but Bass said his agency might eventually seek funding for the program again.
Todd Cheever, who worked in Department of Corrections programs before becoming director of the Juvenile Detention Center in Sioux Falls, said he too has noticed a change in the state approach taken to juvenile offenders.
“I don't know if the Gina Score death was the start of that,” he said. “I think there was a new philosophy with this administration. There was a different mind set under a different administration. The pendulum has swung back to reasonableness and treatment.”
Cheever said the department relies on several agencies and programs to help young people including McCrossen's Boy's Ranch and Summit Oaks in Sioux Falls, privately-operated facilities.
“They are assessing the youth and they are not saying, 'One size fits all,'” he said.

Out-of-state costs
Lee Schoenbeck, a state senator from Watertown, said part of the reason changes came was so that the state could come into compliance with federal guidelines and be eligible to receive federal dollars.
“I think you could find people in law enforcement who would say the way we're doing it isn't the best. But it's warm and fuzzy and it gets us federal dollars,” he said.
Schoenbeck said he and other legislators are concerned about how many young people are placed in programs out of state because their needs cannot be met here.
State Sen. Gene Abdallah of Sioux Falls said it's time for the state to look at ways the facilities at Plankinton could be reused because the state is spending money to maintain the building while it sits empty.
Abdallah said every effort should also be made to take care of South Dakota young people in the state, especially when the cost of some of the out-of-state placements is considered.

“There are kids that we were paying $344 a day for. You can stay at the Waldorf Astoria for less than that,” he said. “If we're going to spend that kind of money and still give them the quality of care we should do them in the state,” he said.
Corrections Secretary Reisch said he wishes a new use could be found for the Plankinton facility because it costs his department money to maintain it while it sits empty. But he says the chances of it reopening as a state-run facility are slim.
A private firm, Cornell Companies, operated out of the facility for three months last year before shutting down after a disagreement with the state over compensation rates.
The state doesn't have enough young people with similar problems to operate a program at Plankinton, Reisch said. In the past about 100 young people were there with a range of problems and offenses. The state now prefers specialized programs for young people, many of which qualify for federal funding, he said.
“Some of the kids who ended up on that campus had failed at other programs. The state didn't have options so tried to make them work at Plankinton,” he said.

Hard cases
The closing of the State Training School also means that there are no placement options for some of the toughest offenders and those young people may be going out-of-state.
Paul Ritter of Summit Oaks, a residential program for troubled youth in Sioux Falls, said a third of their residents come from the Department of Corrections.
The facility is currently expanding. Ritter said his organization would like to be able to accept more young people from corrections when that construction is done. Ritter said it comes down to the issue of how much money the state can pay for those placements.
If the state could come up with more money for in-state placement it's possible some young people could be returned to the South Dakota from out-of-state placements, he said.
Circuit Court Judge Glen Severson of Sioux Falls said he understands that people might be skeptical of juvenile corrections. When he took over the juvenile cases here he first travelled to the state's juvenile facilities to see if he was comfortable sending young people there.

Severson said he and other judges try a number of approaches to rehabilitate young people before they are turned over to the Department of Corrections.
He said young people can't be treated the same as adult offenders, but neither can they be coddled.
“The stated purpose of juvenile court is the rehabilitation of the child,” he said. “Rehabilitation does include a punitive element where you make someone accountable for their actions.”

Corrine Olson
7 August 2005

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