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Juvenile arrests tap out court budget

With more than four months left in the year, the Island County Juvenile and Family Court Services has a problem — it is almost out of money.

The $18,000 it had budgeted for transporting juvenile offenders to detention facilities in other counties had been used up by the middle of June. And as of June 30, of the $130,000 that had been budgeted for renting beds in other counties, only $24,493 remained.

High fuel prices and an increase in the number of juvenile offenders has created a budget crisis for the department, Court Services Administrator Michael Merringer said.

“No one likes to go over budget, but we can’t dictate if law enforcement makes an arrest,” Merringer said.

By the end of June, the budget for transportation was in the red by $775, or $18,775 spent. At the end of June last year, that figure was $11,475. The funds needed to cover the costs for the rest of the year will come from the Island County commissioners, Merringer said.

“The detention and transportation are the only uncontrollable costs,” he said.

Last year, Merringer said he saw the transportation budget go over its allotment, but that occurred in November, not June.

The court services has a local agreement with the Island County Sheriff’s Office to transport juvenile offenders. Court services pays $25 per hour for drivers to take the offenders to either Skagit or Snohomish counties.

Round trips to Skagit have been determined at three hours, or $75, and Snohomish at five hours, or $125. Court services is billed based upon trips. One car is limited to transport no more than two juveniles per trip.

Merringer said officers have made 96 trips to Skagit County, 110 trips to Snohomish County and two trips outside of those two counties.

“We get pages at all hours of the evening, or morning, to go pick up the juveniles,” said James Johnson, a reserve officer with the Sheriff’s Office. “Sometimes it does interfere with our normal day.”

Johnson is part of the corps of officers who is called on to transport the offenders. He said he makes four or five trips per month, often before he reports for work at 1 p.m.

Last week, Johnson had to take a juvenile to Skagit County at 1 a.m. and returned home at 4 a.m. Early in the morning, he received a phone call that the same juvenile needed to be back on the island for court, so he again drove to Skagit and back.

Johnson said the trips are usually full of questions from the young detainees.

“Personally, I try to answer any questions they might have,” he said. “I take my time to talk to them and let them know what’s going on, what the next step might be.”

Sometimes, however, the juveniles are not in a talking mood.

“If they don’t want to talk, I’ll put the radio speakers on them and let them listen to a little music,” Johnson said.

If a youth is arrested and needs to be transported outside of the three-county area, the court services contract requires that two officers go along, doubling the cost. Two youths have already had to be transported outside of Snohomish or Skagit County, Merringer said.

As of Aug. 16, 184 criminal filings against juveniles had been filed, Merringer said, a number that is up by 18 over last year.

“To date, we’ve served more detention than we did last year,” Merringer said. “The fact that we’re not down is concerning.”

The summer is usually when a dip in the numbers can be seen, he said. The number of juvenile offenders generally peaks around October.

“Usually with all of the idle time, you’d think they’d be out screwing around,” Merringer said.

An increase in the number of transports the court service had to provide has drained the budget faster than expected, Merringer said. Within the past two or three months, the number of juvenile offenders is double compared to the past, he said.

“What really throws the numbers off is when you have a couple of kids who are out of control,” Merringer said. “That’s when it costs us money.”

The deficit in the budget only proves how much the county needs the juvenile facility that is being built next to the county jail, Merringer said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at eberto@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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