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Juvenile offenders strain budget

Fifty percent of the year has passed, but 90 percent of Island County’s Juvenile Services detention budget is gone. So is 89 percent of the transportation budget.

Only $13,872 remains of the original $130,000 the county budgeted to pay for room at Skagit and Snohomish counties’ juvenile detention facilities, Juvenile Services Administrator Michael Merringer told Island County commissioners Wednesday.

Merringer said the number of juveniles hasn’t increased dramatically, but the amount of time they are serving has.

“The bulk of the time that’s being spent is kids that are violating probation,” Merringer said. “As a whole, Island County doesn’t see a whole lot of serious offenses, especially against people.”

Most of the juveniles in jail are similar to a 16 year old who was recently sentenced to 30 days in jail for his fourth assault conviction. He is also awaiting trial on his fifth assault arrest.

Merringer said the majority of offenders end up behind bars because of violating probation, which is a set of rules people must follow or risk going to jail. The juveniles must take random urine tests, attend school regularly and check in with a probation officer.

“It’s certainly not a philosophy we have to utilize detention more than we have in the past, but it is part of the continuum,” Merringer said. “It’s used as a last resort.”

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said that he would like to see more intervention before and during a stay in jail. Shelton said that once the county opens its own juvenile detention center, it will be able to offer more services and interventions to people.

The county’s detention center could open as early as December.

“It would be so helpful if we had the funding to not only put these people in incarceration, but to make their time very productive,” Shelton said.

The Washington state legislature authorized counties to increase sales tax by 0.1 cents without a vote of the people in order to create funds for mental health.

Shelton said that at some point in the future, that could be an effective tool for the county.

“Our jails are being severely impacted by people that have been underserved in the mental health area,” Shelton said.

He said there is a connection between the growing population and the lack of services available to that population, especially those that are young and old.

“Is the smart thing to build more jails?” Shelton said. “I say absolutely not. I think we could do a lot with not a lot of money.”

Merringer said that no cause for alarm exists yet because the seriousness of the crimes is not increasing at the same rate as the amount of time.

“I’d be far more concerned if it’s new offenses,” he said. “We are faced with kids who, over a lifetime, have developed their problems.

You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at eberto@whidbeynewstimes.com

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