Copyright 1994 Bergen Record Corp.
REFORMERS TOUT PRIVATE APPROACHBy CHRISTOPHER KILBOURNE
With New Jersey’s juvenile justice system nearing a crossroads, experts are urging Governor Whitman to follow the signs marked "private sector."
"I definitely think it is a route we should take," said Paul DeMuro, a national juvenile justice consultant based in Montclair. "The states that have gotten some reform have gotten it largely through privatization."
Paying private agencies to create and operate small, community-based programs for delinquents is "a way to get local governments and community groups back into the fray," said Hunter Hurst, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a Pittsburgh-based think tank. "You need that in New Jersey."
Although juvenile justice agencies survived Whitman's tax cuts relatively intact, they will have to economize wherever possible to accomplish the reforms the governor has promised. Private-sector rehabilitation and treatment programs are touted as inexpensive, effective, adaptable, and accountable.
Reformers applaud Whitman's commitment to revamping the state's juvenile justice system, and they see it as a second chance to get on the private road that New Jersey bypassed in the 1970s, when it launched a handful of state-run alternatives to its large, institutional training schools.
Today, the vast majority of the 50 community-based programs used by the Division of Juvenile Services are operated by the state. Although the Division of Youth and Family Services contracts with private vendors for many of its programs, the bottom line is that less than 10 percent of the state's delinquents placed outside their homes end up in privately run programs.
That bucks the trend toward the privatization of juvenile programs that began in Massachusetts in 1970 and has caught on in other states, including Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.
"The better youth corrections systems are ones that have a mixture of public and private programs," said Ira M. Schwartz, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Work. "You need that kind of diversity and mix of programs. The question really becomes, what type of mixture is best?"
New Jersey officials are debating that question right now, said Theodore Joseph, director of the Division of Juvenile Services. About 90 percent of the division's programs -- moved from corrections to the Department of Human Services in July -- are state-run, he said. Programs run by other Human Services divisions are divided almost evenly between the public and private sectors, he said.
"I think we would like to get as close to that [50-50 split] as we can. For one thing, there are some things we don't do as well as the private sector," he said, noting his department has only one program for youths with mental health problems.
States that have privatized their juvenile programs have done so either by contracting directly with private agencies or by allowing local governments to negotiate their own deals, based on their needs and volume, with state reimbursement. The latter method is favored by many experts, who say it leads to a greater variety of smaller programs located where they are needed most.
Privatization entails some risks, including the possibility of replacing a public bureaucracy with a private one, but reformers say the dangers are manageable and are more than offset by the potential rewards, including:
"The relationship with providers must be one of integrity and accountability, with clearly defined expectations," DeMuro said. "They either do it or they don't. You can expect some of these programs to run sour, and you have to be willing to close some of them every now and then."
- Lower costs. Because most are designed for juveniles with specific needs, private treatment programs don't have to deal with the full spectrum of problems and youths found in a catch-all public institution such as the New Jersey Training School for Boys in Monroe Township near Jamesburg. As a result, personnel can be streamlined, resulting in leaner operations and lower payrolls.
Competition for the youths being placed by juvenile courts not only keeps a lid on private-program costs, it fosters higher-quality programs. As the director of a Harrisburg, Pa.-based program put it, private agencies don't have a "sugar daddy" to pay their bills, and without continual referrals, they cannot survive.
The availability of more federal funds for private, not-for-profit agencies can reduce the state and local tax bite attributable to juvenile programs. The Social Security Administration will pay more than half the cost of keeping a juvenile in a privately operated facility -- regardless of its size -- if the juvenile comes from a family that either receives or is eligible for federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Public programs qualify for the Social Security Title IV-E money only if they house fewer than 25 youths and are not secure facilities -- conditions that eliminate many state-run facilities from the Social Security-funding picture.
- Flexibility. Because they are not saddled with politics, bureaucracy, and the inertia of public agencies, private programs can adapt quickly to meet the changing needs of juvenile offenders.
If programs are needed to deal with specific problems like sex offenders, car thieves, drug dealers, or youths with mental health problems, the projects are simply put out to bid, with no need to retrain civil service workers or battle balky unions.
"When you build a public building, you have to use it, even if it outgrows its need," Hurst said. "You don't have to do that with the private sector. They come in and take the risks."
- Accountability. Ineffective public-sector programs are allowed to continue under their own momentum because many states, including New Jersey, don't chart their successes and failures. Contracts with private programs can require proof of effectiveness, including tallies of how many participants get jobs or high school equivalency diplomas, or return to crime.
A fringe benefit of privatization is greater program diversity, as agencies try to find a niche for themselves within the system, said James E. Anderson, director of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission.
"It has gotten us services that most of the states don't have," he said. "Services for mentally ill kids, and services with very high academic rankings."
But the process has been a qualified success: A recent evaluation of Massachusetts' system found that post-privatization budget cuts have left state officials unable to properly monitor the programs.
Massachusetts is unable to judge effectiveness or whether providers are abiding by their contracts, according to the report. The study team concluded that personnel reductions have undermined the state's ability to investigate escapes, allegations of abuse, and inmate deaths.
Critics in both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania also charge that larger private agencies have created their own bureaucracies, complete with powerful lobbies that have held those states over a barrel for higher fees.
Anderson said that critics of Pennsylvania's system are overstating their case. "If you look at the quality of what goes on in the private sector and the quality of care in the public sector, I don't think the state is being gouged," he said. "It's certainly not the small, private agencies that are calling the shots."
Many private programs boast of lower recidivism rates than their public counterparts. In Pennsylvania, studies have shown that roughly equal percentages of youths leaving public- and private-sector programs return to crime, but that is not a strike against the private-sector programs, Anderson said. "They are cheaper, and you feel better about the quality of care that kids are getting while they are there."
"Like any worthwhile endeavor, it has two sides," Hurst said. "It is the proverbial double-edged sword."
One drawback is that private programs usually have the right to reject referrals, and they tend to steer clear of the most violent juvenile offenders and those who have severe mental health problems or are suicidal.
Pennsylvania has dealt with the problem by keeping about 600 beds available for juveniles in state-run facilities. Private providers probably could be found even for those youths if the contracts were sufficiently enticing, Anderson said.
Critics say that another downside of private programs is that, because they are usually paid on a per-diem basis, they tend to keep less-troublesome youths for too long, while weeding out agitators and at-risk youths.
With their smaller staffs, private providers also are ill-equipped to provide after-care services for juveniles when they return home, critics say.
But proponents of privatization say that New Jersey can learn from the hard lessons of the states that have pioneered the practice. One solution to the after-care problem is to launch programs in the areas with the greatest juvenile crime problems so that the private agencies are able to provide continued counseling and follow-up services.
Another answer -- the one used in Pennsylvania -- is to provide after-care through the state Probation Department, Anderson said.
The keys to success are tough contracts and strong oversight, said DeMuro, who consults with juvenile justice systems and programs around the country. "You can't let programs exclude kids at will." He envisions a tiered system, based on the seriousness of a delinquent's offense or problems, with fewer exclusions -- and higher fees -- at each succeeding level.
"You need to put the contracts on a performance standard -- how many kids go on to commit more serious crimes, how many kids get GEDs, and how many kids get jobs," he said. "Then you need strong monitoring and administration."
Programs can be deterred from holding onto "good" youngsters for too long if contracts set out expectations for the number of juveniles a program is supposed to serve over a specified period of time, he said.
Schwartz suggested that independent advocacy groups and universities could be recruited to help evaluate programs. "New Jersey has some terrific universities with a good track record in the criminal justice area," he said.
DeMuro said it is crucial that juvenile justice officials contact existing groups and agencies in high-crime areas to tap their expertise and drum up enough support to overcome the not-in-my-back-yard syndrome.
"With 38 percent of juvenile crimes coming out of only six cities, you have to get the resources into those areas," said Martin "Ty" Hodanish, director of New Jersey's Juvenile Delinquency Commission.
Many private programs are less expensive than the $90 a day it costs to keep a juvenile in the Jamesburg training school. Others, particularly those for violent youths or youths with mental health problems, may cost more.
"Across the whole cohort of programs, you could save money," DeMuro said. "But too often when states look to privatize, they are only looking to to save money and they don't give programs enough money to do their jobs."
It is not clear why New Jersey has not made more use of private programs for juveniles, said Frank Gripp, the director of operations for the Department of Corrections. Gripp was one of the officials in charge of the Division of Juvenile Services' community-based programs until they were transferred to the Department of Human Services last summer.
"We always did it ourselves -- I don't know why we did it that way," he said. "We probably should have done a little bit more contracting."
Whitman already has indicated an interest in privatization: She announced last month that she will ask a panel to take an across-the-board look at privatizing government services.
The governor told The Record in December that, because the state does not have "huge amounts of money" to spend on juvenile programs, "we need to be more creative in involving the private, non-profit sector."
Whitman spokesman Carl Golden said he thinks she would be "receptive" to privatizing juvenile programs, but added, "It may be a little early to be talking about moving in that direction until the [juvenile] system becomes more coherent and better coordinated."
Hurst said the upside of the undertaking makes the risks worth taking.
"I think that our system in Pennsylvania has all kinds of warts, but in many ways, it has kept the community involved in the struggle in a way that nothing else could have," he said. "We continue to feel like we are heard and have a voice in shaping the services and, because of that, we haven't given up the way some places have."