June 18, 2008

Juvenile Corrections Audit

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

I’ve known about hard times since I was a kid.  I know about working two jobs just to pay all the bills.  I know how frustrating it is, as a parent, to be unable to buy the things your children need.  And I know the pain that comes from scrimping and saving without feeling like you’re getting anywhere.

Those emotions are the reality for many of our families these days.  The economy is in bad shape and shows no signs of immediate improvement.  In fact, the most recent projections by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue suggest that things will keep getting worse through 2008.  Right now, consumers aren’t putting money back into our economy; people don’t have discretionary income to spend; and jobs are becoming harder and harder to come by.

Of course, things will get better.  In its report, the Department of Revenue notes that the economy will start recovering sometime in 2009.  When that happens, we’ll be stronger than before.  We’ll have resolved some of the problems that caused the current recession.  Above all, we’ll have learned what steps we need to take to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.  If there’s a silver lining to these circumstances, that’s it.

But promises for a brighter tomorrow don’t resolve the needs of families today.  An economic recovery next year won’t benefit those who’ve lost everything this year.  As a state, our emphasis now needs to be on helping people get through these tough times so that they can enjoy better days in the future.

One way we can do that is to spend taxpayer money more efficiently.  Are we investing in the right programs? Are the programs, themselves, being run the right way? Is there anything we can do to generate improved results without increasing revenue? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask right now.

One area where most evidence suggests that we could spend more efficiently is juvenile corrections.  Under the new statutory rate, it costs Wisconsin’s taxpayers $268 per day to house a juvenile offender in a secure juvenile correctional facility.  That means that, over the course of a year, Wisconsin pays almost $100,000 to keep just one youth in a secured facility.  To put that in perspective, for that sort of money, our state could pay a year’s tuition for a dozen students at UW-Milwaukee. 

Recently, I called for a comprehensive audit of secured juvenile correctional facilities.  The audit will let us know exactly what we can do to safely reduce costs in juvenile corrections—whether it’s closing a facility or cutting operating costs.  I’m hoping that the audit will examine everything in the system, from administration, to dietary and medical needs, to training.  By taking a fresh look at the whole process, I’m confident we’ll generate some real savings.

During these tough times, each and every dollar makes a big difference for many of our families.  Government needs to be just as serious about its spending habits.