By the Herald editorial staff
It's budget season and few are feeling the pain more than local governments.
As cities and counties prepare for 2010, tough choices must be made to reach targets set by cash-strapped councils and commissions.
Franklin County has announced recommendations for budget cuts, and Benton County is considering 2 percent cuts in nearly every department as a way to slash $1.6 million from its 2010 budget.
Cutting that kind of broad swath through county-funded programs sent many reeling, with one entity taking particularly troubling hits from both Benton and Franklin counties: the Juvenile Justice Center.
Cuts proposed by the two counties would slash the center's budget by more than half-million dollars. The would mean the end of juvenile drug court, fewer youngsters helped by the juvenile justice system and less supervision of those youths already in the system.
Contemplating deep cuts in such an important program ought to make county commissioners very uncomfortable.
If the plan to cut $535,000 goes through, the juvenile court administrator will have to reduce the number of detention officers, which means fewer youths can be held at the center. A lot fewer.
According to administrator Sharon Paradis, the number of juveniles the center could handle at one time would drop from 60 to 35.
That's a lot of kids left out on the street who might benefit from a change in environment.
Paradis says cuts will also have to be made to support staff, security and urinalysis testing. For kids battling the demons of drugs and alcohol, that kind of testing is the only way to know for sure if they are staying sober or need more help.
Then there is drug court. It will shut down under these cuts. Juvenile drug court had been funded by a grant, and when grants go away, so does the program unless alternate funding is found. Paradis had hoped to use part of her county budget to pay for it.
Drug courts use substance abuse treatment and monitoring to rehabilitate participants and break the cycle of addiction and crime.
Successful graduates of the program are expected to put their drug use behind them and become productive members of the community. Tri-City police chiefs have bemoaned the loss of the juvenile program. Adult drug court also faces possible elimination.
The best shot at rehabilitation is often when drug users are young. Long-term habits and patterns of self-destruction have not had a chance to form.
Young people can adapt and change much more readily than older folks, making drug court an especially useful tool in the fight to keep youngsters from becoming career criminals and junkies.
A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan state research institution, concluded that every dollar spent on drug court reaps $7 to $10 in return.
The savings come from preventing crimes and returning people to productive lives instead of sending them to prison.
The two counties face tough economic times, but every effort should be made to find a way to protect the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center.
It's not only a smart investment, but there's a moral imperative too.
It's clich but true -- today's children are tomorrow's future. If we give up trying to save them, what will tomorrow bring?