Seldom can the General Assembly disband for the year and justify patting themselves on the back.
Usually when they pat themselves and mumble about looking out for the public is when they do something like pass a feckless ethics bill that has less teeth than a room full of methamphetamine addicts. Such was the case this year but it should not be a shock because this rerun on ethics reform has been running longer than “The Andy Griffith Show.” But that is a topic for another day.
This year, members of the General Assembly can be proud of the steps taken to reform the Juvenile Justice system.
At the core of the movement, of course, is the idea the state can save a lot of money by still locking up the most serious offenders but finding other ways to deal with youths who have gone astray but not crossed the line to the most heinous of offenses.
When a politician can talk about saving taxpayer money, they usually do so with glee because they see it as votes come re-election time. Saving taxpayer money is no small thing but when it comes to the justice system and public safety, it should not be the key element.
This time, however, there is real merit in what the General Assembly has done — if they follow through and take the reform to its proposed end.
When things are flush and fat and the coffers are full, politicians tend to fund those projects near to their heart, and the ones they figure will help them come re-election time.
When things are tight, they fall back on the tired excuse of “We just can’t afford that right now,” no matter how needed or meritorious the project or program may be.
The loophole — no, it’s not a loophole but a potentially enormous crevasse — is whether or not the politicians will funnel some of the savings resulting from reduced incarceration to the communities to develop much needed resources. This is critical to the overhaul of the system.
The disparity in available resources from community to community can be huge and even those that have made a dedicated effort to develop programs usually find their assets stretched to the limit.
While it may be distasteful to admit, there are some juveniles who have made the decision to go the wrong way and will not change no matter how much effort is put into their rehabilitation. Why and how they reached this point may never be known but the sad fact is this happens, and for these, we have prisons.
But this is a minority. Youngsters will often do knucklehead things, sometimes knucklehead things that involve the violation of the law but not in the most serious manner.
These are the ones who still have a future because this kind of conduct can be addressed by the Juvenile Court and these youngsters can still be turned in the right direction given sufficient support and motivation.
And that is the key. Programs focusing on mental health, substance abuse, anger management, coping skills, learning problems, mentoring and a whole host of issues can and do make a significant impact on the conduct of youngsters.
The steps the General Assembly took this year in juvenile justice reform are a great first step. The question is: Will they follow through on the goal of actually providing much needed funding to local communities to create the programs that will ultimately pay dividends in the rehabilitation of youth?
The ball is in the court of the politicians. Let’s hope they don’t dribble this one off their foot.
Ric Latarski is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of topics and can be reached at Rlatarski@aol.com.