Only a matter of time

Juvenile offenders who don't get the help they need become criminals of the future

So far, the headlines about Josephine County's financial woes have focused on the loss of sheriff's patrols and space in the county jail to lock up adult arrestees. That is troubling enough, but a story in Monday's paper about cuts to the Juvenile Justice Center should cause even more concern.

Juveniles referred to the center by police and other authorities not only are held to account for their actions, they get the help and treatment they frequently need to cope with drug and alcohol addiction, neglect and abuse.

Josephine County closed its Juvenile Justice Center in April 2012. In the previous year, the Daily Courier reported, 750 youths were referred there. In the subsequent year, only 387 were, and just 86 were placed in detention.

Before the closure, every one of those youths — even the ones not taken into detention — would have received some kind of treatment.

The county's Juvenile Department director notes that the intake process frequently reveals underlying issues feeding the youths' misbehavior — substance abuse, parental neglect or abuse, homelessness — that can be addressed only if the juvenile's needs are identified or assessed. Juveniles who miss out on that help are headed for much more serious trouble down the road.

Instead of shoplifting or staying out after curfew, they escalate to more serious offenses. Eventually, those will land them in detention beds leased from Jackson County. But by then, the chance to turn their lives around could be gone for good.

Because funds are so limited, Josephine County reserves those leased detention beds for the most serious juvenile offenders.

Those youths are not just kids gone bad. They are the future residents of the Josephine County Jail and the state prison system.

The good news, such as it is: The city of Grants Pass is considering chipping in some money for the detention center and for the adult county jail. That is a responsible step on the part of city officials, who clearly recognize the importance not only of protecting the public from criminals, but of protecting juvenile criminals-in-the-making from themselves.

As one city councilor noted, many juveniles who should be getting help wind up on the street, where they become victims as well as perpetrators.

Josephine County voters turned down a tax measure that would have helped keep juvenile services going a while longer. While the measure failed countywide, a majority of Grants Pass voters favored it.

It's encouraging to see the City Council consider doing what it can to meet this serious community need.

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