Pay now, or pay later

Published 8:21 am Friday, April 2, 2010

Gov. Bob McDonnell, who gets the final say on a two-year budget adopted last month by the General Assembly, should come to the rescue of a program that stands to save Virginia taxpayers many dollars for many years to come.

We refer to the Commonwealth ChalleNGe, a quasi-military program whose aim is to save at-risk teenagers from lives of crime and incarceration.

The General Assembly’s budget, which only McDonnell can alter, cuts $1.9 million in funding for the program, which effectively would be shut down because it would lack required matching funds for federal money that supports its operations.

The program, housed at Fort Pendleton in Virginia Beach, costs about $14,000 per cadet, or about $4.1 million a year. Many high school dropouts from Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County have successfully completed the program, which is a successor to the old juvenile “boot camps” where the state used to send juvenile troublemakers.

Commonwealth ChalleNGe has been more effective for a couple of reasons. Unlike the boot camps, kids are not ordered by judges to attend. They must apply and earn acceptance. After completing the five-month residential aspect of the program, the cadets continue to work for one year with a mentor who helps keep them on the right path.

Not all, certainly, but many of the program’s graduates become gainfully employed or continue their educations, becoming productive citizens rather than criminals.

McDonnell, who was supportive of Commonwealth ChalleNGe during his time as attorney general and on the campaign trail last year, has until mid-April to decide whether to exercise his veto power and save funding for the program.

He should.

Perhaps the money that lawmakers believe they are saving by leaving judgeships vacant in Western Tidewater could be redirected to Commonwealth ChalleNGe. Every teenager who is saved from a life of crime means one less case, or maybe more, for a judge to handle down the road.