Sedgwick County looking for funds to help save juvenile diversion program

Sedgwick County hopes to save a diversion program for juveniles that gives them a chance to wipe the slate clean and keep them out of a detention center.

State budget cuts have threatened the program, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said. The program faces a shortfall of just less than $150,000.

“My understanding is that the county is going to do its best to find the money to make sure the program is in effect through 2014,” Bennett said.

County Manager William Buchanan said Tuesday that he agrees the program makes sense. If young criminals who’ve committed minor crimes go to probation instead of diversion, the cost to taxpayers is greater.

Juveniles must apply for the program and be approved. Under the terms of the program, they must accept responsibility for their crimes and agree to requirements such as restitution, counseling, substance abuse or mental health treatment and community service. They also have to pay costs and fees.

The roughly $150,000 cut would affect two staff positions.

“We’d have two fewer coordinators, and the result would be fewer kids on diversion,” Bennett said.

The Kansas Department of Corrections has struggled with budget reductions. Last month, Gov. Sam Brownback restored $2.7 million to the department for fiscal 2014, which started July 1, and vetoed the budget for fiscal 2015, which included nearly $10 million in cuts to the department.

Bennett sees diversion as a cheaper alternative to probation.

“When money’s tight, discretionary programs like this suffer,” he said. “But alternatives to incarceration, especially for the younger set, saves everyone.”

The diversion program, he said, allows juveniles to avoid a criminal record.

“You get a chance to right your ship,” Bennett said.

Examples of crimes that may qualify juveniles for the program are shoplifting, first-time possession of marijuana and criminal damage to property, among others.

Commissioner Dave Unruh said he does not support the county making up cuts in the long term but would consider county funds for the short term.

“If they reduce the program, they’re going to end up with kids back in the state system. That’s not going to save them money. It’s going to end up costing more money for them,” Unruh said.

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