The Rev. Robert Blake sits in the office of his Highland Park church, leafing through a folder filled with stories of teenagers who have run afoul of the law.

There's a 17-year-old arrested for carjacking. A 14-year-old who was skipping school and hanging with gangs. Another who committed unarmed robbery. 

What these kids have in common is participation in an innovative restorative justice program that requires an appearance before a council of elders that Blake is part of.

The council's purpose is twofold, Blake explains.

It is important, he says, for the teens to understand the harm they cause — harm to victims of their crimes, harm to the community overall. As part of their redemption process, along with counseling and treatment, they are required to give back to the community, putting in time at a soup kitchen or community garden or similar projects.

"They need to know that they are being held accountable for what they did wrong," Blake says.

But it is just as important to show these kids that they are not alone. "The message that we give them is that 'we are behind you' and 'we are here to support you,'" Blake explains.

Although the elders are volunteers, the program and similar efforts elsewhere in the county are coordinated and administered by a private nonprofit organization funded by the county and the state.

It is all part of groundbreaking approach launched by Wayne County a decade ago to better address the problem of juvenile delinquency. 

In 1999, the county's juvenile justice services were in such disarray that they were in danger of being taken over by the federal government, according to a 2006 report. To address the problem, the top-down, state-dominated system was replaced by what the 2006 study described as a "partnership between the Wayne County Department of Children and Family Services and six private, not-for-profit entities: the Juvenile Assessment Center [JAC] and five Care Management Organizations [CMOs]. 

"Together they would identify, manage and monitor individualized treatment services for all adjudicated Wayne County juveniles."

Instead of a system Blake describes as "locking them up and throwing away the keys," an approach was devised that emphasizes home-based programs, community involvement and targeted treatment programs such as placement in secured facilities for sex offenders and youth with drug and mental health problems.

The 2006 study describes the approach this way: "It recognizes that with guidance and support, adjudicated adolescents are capable of responsible behavior. Instead of chaining these youths to a shadowy ship sailing into an ugly future, it created a system that frees them from the damaging circumstances that were kidnapping them. The system offers hope to traumatized youth, frightened parents and concerned neighbors that the life trajectory of its juveniles can be corrected and reclaimed."

The five CMOs in different parts of the county were devised so that each could institute programs based on the particular problems and cultures of the areas they serve. 

Instead of the disaster that preceded it, the new system, which handled 4,500 cases last year, is hailed as a model program. Perhaps the most telling measure has been the reduction of the recidivism rate. In 1999, before the change, 66 percent of Wayne County teens arrested once found themselves in court again; last year that rate was 18 percent.

Despite that success — and immense savings for the county's juvenile justice system — the program, according to proponents, is being placed in severe jeopardy by cuts being proposed by County Executive Robert Ficano. His administration recommends cutting the program — in which the state matches the county dollars — from $85 million annually to $56 million. That comes on top of cuts totaling $30 million for the 2009 and 2010 budget years.

If Ficano's recommendations are followed, funding for the entire program will be less than half the $115 million it was allocated in 2008. 

No one denies the county has to make painful budget decisions. But supporters of the juvenile justice program say that the severe reductions being proposed are penny-wise and pound-foolish. 

As pointed out in an August memo from the County Commission's Health and Human Services Committee, which held a public hearing on the matter, "At the proposed budget amount, the CMOs will not be able to perform the services which have led to the millions of dollars in savings to the county over the last 10 years. In fact, if we have to turn these services back over to the state, it will cost the county millions more than if we had properly funded it."

With institutionalization costing more than $400 a day, the more kids in lockups, the higher the cost to taxpayers. 

Paradoxically, Daniel Chaney, director of juvenile services for the county's Department of Children and Family Services — and one of the authors of the 2006 study and one of the originators of the JAC/CMO approach — calls "speculative" claims that cuts will cost taxpayers more in the long run.

He says critics fail to take into account separately funded programs to keep at-risk youth out of the juvenile court system in the first place. 

In addition, he says, no one is talking about eliminating the JAC/CMO system, just paring it back.

Opponents of the cuts say the reductions will make it impossible to keep five separate, geographically oriented CMOs. To help maintain the current system, the Health and Human Services Committee urges cuts limited to $6 million instead of the $29 million the administration seeks.

Although still a major blow, the CMOs say that they would be able to continue operating at the funding level recommended by the committee.

With the full commission to vote on a budget this week, a lot of anxious eyes will be watching. Among them will be Rev. Blake.

"Hopefully," he says, "the money will be there for these kids. Because at this date, in their lives, as well as for the community as a whole, it is important."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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