Hennepin County is spending too much on residential treatment programs for juvenile offenders and could save money and get better results by leaving more young offenders with their families and placing them in daytime rehabilitation programs.

That's the finding of a study group made up of judges and corrections officials who recommend overhauling programs at the Hennepin County Home School.

Programs cost too much, last too long and do not address family issues once young people are released, the group said in a report to the Hennepin County Board.

"The home school has become ... a place of last resort for juveniles we don't know what to do with," Tom Merkel, county director of community corrections and rehabilitation, told the County Board this week.

Merkel said the study group "seriously considered" closing the home school, but decided it was ideal for new, shorter residence programs and day treatment for juvenile offenders.

County commissioners, whose concerns over the county home school spurred the study, expressed frustration at lack of progress on reshaping the school and reining in costs. For too long Hennepin has rested on its reputation as an innovator, some commissioners said. The report indicates counties such as Dakota, Ramsey and Washington have more effective programs for juvenile offenders.

After 15 years of off-and-on conversations about the home school, "I can't tell you what the home school is supposed to be," an exasperated Commissioner Mike Opat said. "I don't have confidence in how the home school operates. You're going to have to prove [that it can work] to me."

The county spends $31 million a year on out-of-home correctional placements for juveniles, $12.5 million of that on the home school, according to the study group's report.

In 2007 it spent an average of $62,753 on each of the 494 youths who were placed in 68 residential programs inside and outside of Minnesota.

About 100 of those young people posed a low or moderate risk to public safety and could have received cheaper community-based services, the report says.

"There is almost an assumption [in the county] that a kid should go to out-of-home placement," Hennepin County Judge Lucy Wieland, a member of the study group, told the board. "It's a mindset we need to get out of."

There hasn't been an evalulation of program effectiveness because the county doesn't have the staff to evaluate 68 residential programs, Merkel said. He wants to cut the number of residential providers down to about 15. Savings from reducing those placements could be used to help create community-based programs, he said.

The home school was established by the Legislature in 1907. Last year, an average of 94 juveniles were in residence on the Minnetonka campus each day. About 90 percent were boys; the most common conviction was for assault.

Home school residents stayed an average of nine months, which research shows is too long except in the case of sex offenders, experts say. At a cost of $332 a day -- $100 to $200 more a day than most of the other residential programs used by the county -- that adds up to $89,640 per offender.

Merkel said the home school's per-resident costs are high because it hasn't been at capacity and because the campus' seven residential cottages require high staffing levels. One cottage was closed in 2003 because of budget cuts.

A home school program for juvenile sex offenders who stay for nine to 18 months of treatment gets high marks and likely will remain, Merkel said. But other programs where kids now stay an average of nine months would aim for three- to six-month stays. Some residential programs would become 12-hour day programs where offenders are bused in from home. The school's secure unit, a heavily staffed cottage where kids go if they act out, would close. Disruptive residents would instead go downtown to the Juvenile Detention Center.

About 40 percent of home school residents have mental health issues, said Chris Owens, area director for juvenile services in corrections. She said officials want to more narrowly define who goes to the home school, creating community programs for kids with milder mental health issues.

Hennepin, Ramsey and Dakota counties are talking about creating a regional center on a secure floor in the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center for young offenders with serious diagnoses like psychosis, schizophrenia and severe depression.

Owens said Hennepin's overuse of out-of-home placement has occurred partly because there have been few other options to use where juveniles can get treatment and be protected from dysfunctional family situations.

The county is anticipating creation of programs like Dakota County's New Chance, a day treatment program for boys ages 13 to 18. Most have an average of five criminal charges on their record, including felonies. Ninety percent are chemically dependent. Julie Angeles, supervisor in community corrections, said the program is a last chance for "high risk, high needs" teenagers to straighten up before going into out-of-home placement.

The teenagers are bused from home to the program, where they have about eight hours of school, therapy for behavior and drug problems, counseling and work on projects such as the garden they tended this summer.

Kids and their parents, who are charged for program participation on a sliding scale, get intensive family therapy. For the first couple of weeks, boys are on house arrest, wearing ankle bracelets that allow electronic monitoring to make sure they're at home. If they get into more trouble, they must wear the bracelets again.

Success is measured by the proportion who commit another felony. The success rate is about 50-50, "not great," Angeles said. But it works for some kids.

"We do make a difference," she said. "At least once a month we have some kid stop by and say, 'Hey, I just wanted to let you know I'm doing great.'"

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380