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County sees spike in juvenile crime

The number of Pierce County children who've committed serious offenses, especially sex offenses, in the last year is extraordinary for a county this size and the cost will be staggering.

The count is over twice what his department expected and will cost the county about $500,000 more than planned, said Human Services Director Reggie Bicha.

So far this year, Pierce County has 16 juveniles who have gone through juvenile court and are in custody for committing serious crimes. That's 10 more than human services department workers anticipated when they prepared the 2006 budget.

Those youngsters--most of whom are in state institutions or group homes--add up to an unbudgeted expense of $468,000, said Bicha. And the year is only half over.

The offenses, all committed by children under age 17, include serious sex crimes, burglary, theft and uncontrollability.

Nationwide and statewide numbers of delinquent youths run in cycles, higher at some times and lower at others. Currently, said Bicha, other Wisconsin counties are also seeing increases, but not like the jump here.

"Pierce County is more of a spike than a rise compared to other counties," he said.

Over the past decade, Pierce County has customarily had six to nine youngsters in child care institutions or out-of-county group homes in any given month. In some years, there were only two or three kids in care, said Bicha.

He said the number of current cases involving serious sex offenses is also unusually high.

"You might have one or two a year," said Bicha. "To have so many concentrated in one county at this population, this is the anomaly."

While he doesn't expect this to be a trend extending into future years, Bicha said his department will fall far short of the money it needs to pay for court-ordered institutional care this year.

Placement cost for each of these juveniles ranges from $8,032 to $4,470 a month. In four current cases, the cost for a single youth will be over $84,000 in 2006.

The county receives a fixed amount annually from the state for all juvenile justice services and that amount won't be increased even though the numbers are higher, said Bicha.

The human services department budgeted $48,000 for juvenile correctional institutions, the counterpart of adult prison, but the county has no placements there. If that money isn't spent, it could be applied to the child care institution and group homes debts, said Bicha.

Families are also expected to pay part of the costs.

Still, said Bicha, even with no other placements, the deficit will be high.

Determining how to pay the cost is, he said, the responsibility of county administrators.

He suggested the county board could assume future costs won't be as high and repay the deficit over the next couple of years.

Or, he said, supervisors could cover the deficit by transferring money from the county's contingency fund, as they did when the sheriff's department overran its budget.

While his department has no control over costs in institutions, it hopes to avoid recidivism and the related costs by providing proper treatment and support for these youths when they return, said Bicha.