Igniting Human Potential.
Responsible for restructuring the department from a traditional state agency to a market-driven for-profit company, Zimmermann not only created a safer environment for juveniles and staff, but also built a foundation upon which the department, judges, prosecutors, county commissioners and defendants are able to agree on the basic principle of working in the best interest of juvenile offenders. According to Zimmermann, RECLAIM (Reasoned and Equitable Community and Local Alternatives to the Incarceration of Minors), a program that has reconstructed the department, ignites human potential and offers endless possibilities for DYS staff, judges and youthful offenders.
Zimmermann joined the DYS staff in 1987 as public information officer to "open the doors" of the then-troubled agency. DYS had suffered through a scandal when the former director as well as several executive staff members were sent to prison on federal and state levels for fraud. Appointed to clean up the agency's image, she had to convince legislators, the media, the public and staff that DYS could be turned around. "We had to set a clear course to convince people they were not going to be shaken down, that money was not going to be stolen, that kids were going to be served and that we were going to progress strategically," says Zimmermann. "We had to ask ourselves, 'How can we open up the system to everyone so people can see what's right and what's wrong?'"
Zimmermann did this by inviting legislators, the media and anyone else interested to walk the halls of the facilities. She also spoke with as many people as possible, sharing her vision of an organization that made sure staff and youths were safe, youthful offenders' constitutional rights were guaranteed and that each juvenile was treated humanely. "This was the basic foundation that was needed," she says. "It can be compared to building a basement in a house. We made sure there was a secure, stable basement before we started working on the other levels." Thus, in order to help youths with specific treatments, Zimmermann made sure they had the necessities first. "You cannot build a roof until the foundation is secure," she says.
While strategically building the other floors, Zimmermann ensured that each facility throughout the department had the same secure foundations. "You cannot have one facility that is a shining star and another that is just scraping to get along," she says.
At that time, the system was at 175 percent capacity with 2,543 youths. While researching the system's problems, Zimmermann found that judges and the department had been arguing for some time, mainly about money since their budgets overlapped. She then proposed to make a paradigm shift in which RECLAIM, a new program, would alleviate these problems. RECLAIM makes corrections market-driven and the cost of incarceration visible. All the money used for public facilities, private facilities and treatment facilities is put together and one-third is added. It then is distributed to counties. Each county then has the responsibility of deciding how to spend this money.
Cost at a state level now has a price tag. Judges can decide if they should send a first-time substance abuser to prison for a year, spending $40,000, or spend that money on 20 youths for drug treatment/rehabilitation. "The question comes down to what our community can tolerate," says Zimmermann. In a situation with a first-time drug offense, not sending a youth to prison not only avoids putting a nonviolent offender with violent offenders, giving him or her the appropriate treatment, but also saves money. When dealing with more serious offenders on the other hand, she adds, "a judge most likely will see that spending $40,000 is a good deal for incarcerating the offender." RECLAIM also has a safety net in which there is no price tag on heinous offenders, because DYS does not want an important decision to be money-driven.
Like all major shifts, RECLAIM was a big risk. Fortunately, taking the risk was a good decision. The program has lowered the incarcerated population dramatically; it presently has fewer than 2,000 offenders. Further, local communities have about $20 million and projects close to $30 million for this year to help their youths.
DYS also has created a victims services office, something that is a rarity in juvenile institutions. Zimmermann feels it is essential for juvenile offenders to confront their victims or victims' families. "It is one way to take a child who has the pilot light of their soul extinguished and relight it," she says. "A victim is the one who can relight his or her soul. Understanding that what he or she has done is wrong is the only way to relight it."
Elizabeth Kiug is assistant editor of Corrections Today.