Rock County DA intervened on juvenile cases to protect public
“We’re a public agency,” Charmian Klyve, human services director, said. “We’re not trying to hide anything.”
But after noticing a sharp decline in requests for prosecution and hearing reports of lawbreaking teens getting warnings, the Rock County District Attorney’s Office in February took the unusual step of reviewing juvenile cases.
“It became pretty obvious that the number of detentions had plummeted and the number of referrals had plummeted,” Rock County District Attorney David O’Leary said. “I wanted to make sure public safety was not being ignored.”
The district attorney’s office this year reviewed 301 of juvenile probation’s decisions to take “no action” against juveniles who were arrested, he said.
The office overturned 38 “no action” referrals, roughly 13 percent, and filed petitions to prosecute the juveniles, O’Leary said. A petition is the equivalent to a criminal charge in adult court.
The juvenile detention center has become the center of controversy recently after Rock County Human Services included closing or partially closing the facility as an option to save up to $400,000 in 2010.
Officials allege an order was issued to juvenile probation officers to deny the lockup of high-risk juveniles to make the argument for closing the facility.
Kathleen Lichtfuss, former superintendent of the detention center, said Klyve directed probation officers to limit the number of juveniles admitted to the facility.
Ryan Booth, juvenile detention center union supervisor, has made the same allegations against juvenile probation supervisors.
Steve Kopp, Janesville deputy police chief, said it has become more difficult for officers to get juvenile probation to put juveniles in detention. He said officers don’t recommend detention unless the juvenile is public-safety risk.
“We don’t make that request lightly,” Kopp said. “If we think the juvenile needs to be held in secure detention, there is a reason for that. We would hope that request be honored.”
O’Leary said that in one case, a teen beat up another teen at school. The teen received a warning letter and brought it to the school resource officer, rubbing it in his face.
In another case, a gang fight at Riverfest in Beloit led to a police referral for detention, but the teens were set free, Booth said.
Despite the allegations, Klyve said no one ever issued an order asking juvenile probation officers to deny the lockup of juveniles or to reduce the caseload.
Human services also never changed its policy regarding detaining juveniles or referring them for prosecution, she said.
In fact, Klyve said, 46 percent of cases reviewed by probation officers through June this year have been referred to the district attorney’s office. That percentage is nearly the same as previous years, she said.
Through March of this year, 194 cases were referred for prosecution, down from 240 during the same period in 2008. But in April, May and June this year, 272 juvenile were referred, illustrating how numbers fluctuate depending on the time of year, Klyve said.
Ryan Trautsch, a juvenile probation supervisor, said the method of deciding how to handle juvenile offenders hasn’t changed. He said public safety is a top priority.
One explanation for fewer referrals is that law enforcement is making fewer arrests and referring fewer juveniles to probation, said Jason Witt, deputy director of human services.
And the probation office has changed its philosophy on detaining juveniles who violate their probation, choosing to place them in the community, Witt said.
Meanwhile, juvenile probation is in the process of implementing a new way of assessing whether juveniles should be detained, he said. The change is expected to make the process more objective.
The detention center’s average daily population dropped to 19 juveniles per day through July, compared to 29 per day during the same time in 2008.
If the detention center closed, the county would rent beds in other counties.
A secure transport company would be hired to move the juveniles.
Thirty employees work in the detention center, located near the Rock County Jail on Janesville's north side at highways 14 and 51.
If only the secure side closed, about 15 people would be laid off. About 27 people would be laid off if the entire building closed.