State budget forces cuts by YouthZone | AspenTimes.com

State budget forces cuts by YouthZone

A group that tries to keep high-risk youth in the Roaring Fork Valley out of trouble has decided to scrap one of two main programs in an effort to deal with state budget cuts.

YouthZone has decided it will not provide its highly regarded “diversion” program for minors accused of felony crimes and facing time behind bars or a conviction on their record, according to executive director Debbie Wilde.

The organization had to cut its services and seek alternative sources of revenue after its funding from the state of Colorado was cut from $564,000 to an estimated $250,000 for the fiscal year that started in July.

In some cases, YouthZone was able to continue programs by charging fees. But in other cases, programs were cut to send a message to state officials, Wilde said.

That’s the case with the diversion program, which involved working with kids facing felony charges in district courts. YouthZone worked with the criminal justice system ? judges, prosecutors and cops ? to find alternative punishment and treatment when it was deemed appropriate.

The concept was that some kids could benefit from “diversion” rather than going through the traditional system and ending up with a felony conviction or even detention time.

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Diversion programs prevent kids from becoming repeat offenders about 92 percent of the time, Wilde said.

“The state has got to hear about it,” she said. “It’s clearly going to cost the state more not to operate that program.”

It costs the state about $58,000 on average to deal with a youth in the criminal justice system. That could include detention time and follow-up with a probation officer.

For about the same amount of money, YouthZone said it could work with 90 or so kids in an alternative program.

Wilde said her staff considered offering its diversion program by charging fees. They decided against that system because they didn’t want diversion available only to families that could pay.

There were about 90 kids in the diversion program last year.

Another popular program was salvaged. YouthZone will now go to a fee-based system to work with kids accused of lesser crimes and going through the county and municipal courts.

In that program, YouthZone serves more as part of the system rather than an alternative to it. Its workers help judges and prosecutors determine appropriate punishment and treatments.

YouthZone will charge the towns it works with and the kids going through the court system a fee for its services. About 225 kids went through that program last year.

YouthZone has programs in every town from Aspen to Meeker and Rifle. It serves all towns of the Roaring Fork Valley.

“For the big picture, that’s not going to bring in the revenue like the state grants,” Wilde said. Nevertheless, it lets the organization avoid closing its doors.

Wilde and her staff are still exploring strategies for offsetting the state cutbacks. YouthZone just had one of its most successful fund-raising efforts. Its Kiss ?n Squeal competition raised $143,000 ? $31,000 more than last year.

Candidates from towns throughout the valley raise pledges. The candidate who collects the most kisses a pig.

Kerry Rippy, a seventh-grader at Glenwood Springs, raised $51,000. She tapped into grants from foundations outside the area. No one had thought of approaching them before, Wilde said.

YouthZone’s goal was to raise $115,000 from the competition. Even though it far exceeded that amount, its deficit is still formidable.

YouthZone used to have a budget of about $1 million. “This has been a real test for us,” said Wilde.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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