$11-Million Cut Might Threaten Youth Programs : Funding: Reductions in federal spending will be 'impossible to absorb,' says Probation Department's chief.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal budget cuts will strip the Orange County Probation Department of almost $11 million a year, a loss that threatens critical programs aimed at steering young offenders away from crime, county officials said.

"This loss would be impossible to absorb," said county Chief Probation Officer Michael Schumacher. "If this money cannot be restored, I would have to make some drastic recommendations."

Those recommendations could include shutting down the county's three juvenile detention camps, where troubled youths are offered services ranging from mental health to substance abuse treatment.

Although other counties will face funding cuts, the loss could be especially severe in Orange County. The bankruptcy already has forced the Probation Department to cut its $68-million budget by $9.3 million and to eliminate 129 jobs.

"This is really coming at a bad time for us," Schumacher said.

California receives about $140 million from the federal government to help counties offset the cost of detaining juvenile offenders who come from troubled homes.

As of Dec. 31, the federal government will no longer defray costs for detaining juveniles, although it will continue funding programs that house youths who, for their own safety, are removed from their homes.

Schumacher said his agency's studies show that a small number of juvenile offenders--just 8%--are later responsible for 55% of crimes committed by "repeat offenders."

Amid widespread public concern about juvenile crime, Schumacher believes that intensifying efforts to rehabilitate youthful offenders will help prevent them from evolving into hardened, sophisticated criminals.

"When it comes to doing something for kids who break the law, it becomes less of an interest to officials," said Schumacher. "Although there seems to be a great interest in the subject of juvenile crime."

Orange County is not alone in its concerns. Los Angeles County is expected to be hit hard by the cuts and anticipates closing its entire juvenile camp program, Schumacher said.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not return phone calls Friday.

Schumacher said he hopes the funding will be restored in some other form, most likely through federal block grants being discussed in Congress.

Gene Roh, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California, is in Washington lobbying for an alternative to the cuts, Schumacher said.

The Legislature is also being asked to restore money it eliminated a few years ago when federal funding for the now-threatened probation programs began in 1991.

"We haven't given up hope," Schumacher said. "But the state funding would only be a fraction of what we might lose."

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