BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Group homes and probation officers for convicted teenagers could be cut if legislators do not act to fix the state's mounting budget shortfall.
The Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ), which has already endured budget cuts over the past few years, could see 63 percent of their budget disappear during fiscal year 2016-2017 as part of the governor's worst-case scenario budget proposal. That proposal was written as if legislators did nothing to address the $2 billion shortfall.
"This is a disastrous situation," said Dr. Mary Livers, who heads the OJJ.
The OJJ works with teenagers charged with crimes. After adjudication, high-risk juveniles are sent to secure care facilities, much like the former Jetson Center for Youth, which was located in Baker until its closure in 2014.
Some lower-risk offenders are sent to group homes where they may receive specialized care, while many others enter into the probation program.
"These are just kids, but they're kids on the way to big trouble and they're on their way to a lifetime of crime," Livers said.
In recent years, the OJJ has seen success. Seventy percent of those who have gone through the program have not committed another offense within a three year period. Livers said a two-thirds cut could change that dramatically.
"More kids are going to go into the adult system, more kids are going to be out in the community unsupervised," she said.
If the cuts were put in place, 300 employees of the OJJ would be let go.
All of the group homes would be shuttered. The probation system would also be cut, leaving teenagers back on the streets where they committed the offenses.
Meanwhile, one of the three high security facilities overseen by the OJJ would be closed with more than 100 juveniles released.
"Really, it's a matter of pay OJJ now or pay corrections later," she said.
Down the pipeline, the OJJ was planning a replacement for the Jetson Center in Baker. However, with budget cuts, that could be off the table for the foreseeable future.
"We were hoping to do that in the next few years, but obviously if this happens, we've really turned back the clock," she said.
The state legislator now only has a matter of weeks to address the budget shortfall.