Costly necessity: No changes in juvenile justice after request

Published 12:05 am Sunday, February 19, 2012

Adams County Youth Court Judge John Hudson reviews individual cases with attorneys, youth advocates and court staff in the courtroom on the second floor of the Adams County Juvenile Justice Building several months ago.

Justice isn’t cheap, not even for juveniles. But it is worth it, those closest to the local system say.

Adams County’s juvenile justice administrators told the county board of supervisors in August that the high cost of the juvenile justice detention center is an unfortunate reality.

Still, the supervisors asked them to try to find ways to lower costs and to get other counties to house their juvenile offenders in Adams County as a way to funnel funds into their system.

Six months later, the administrators say no substantial changes to how the system handles its costs have been made. They haven’t, they say, because the system they have works.

The bottom line

“One thing to understand is that a juvenile detention center is the equivalent to an adult jail,” Youth Court Judge John Hudson said. “If you don’t have juvenile detention, you don’t have any place you can put juveniles who are breaking the law. They can’t go to (adult) jail, that’s against the law.”

Federal law requires that juvenile offenders be housed out of sight and sound of adult offenders. Nowhere in the county jail meets that requirement, and Hudson said the only alternative would be to house juveniles in other facilities around the state that meet those requirements, and at one time, that’s what the county did.

“Being located in southwest Mississippi, we weren’t close to any other detention facilities,” Hudson said. “The closest was in McComb, there was another one in Warren County, the one in Jackson was always full so you couldn’t get in there — it meant we would have kids and deputies on road all day every day. Fiscally speaking, that was not responsible.”

The judge said the youth court has done a cost analysis, and the cost of running a juvenile detention center was the same if not cheaper than having to transport and house juvenile offenders to other locations.

Juvenile justice department head Glen Arnold said the center is given a $400,000 yearly budget, and he always returns money at the end of the fiscal year. The majority of that money is used for payroll.

The center is required to keep two guards on site at all times, one male and one female. The center’s employees work on two 12-hour shifts. A third guard works the day shift to transport offenders to court and back. The center runs on the minimum staff required for its 25 beds, Hudson said.

Just as Adams County used to pay to house their juvenile offenders in other locations, the surrounding counties now use the Adams County facility.

In December, seven of the 16 offenders in the center were from surrounding areas. In January, six of the 15 were. The center receives $100 a day for each out-of-county offender it houses.

“I think we are saving the county money because if we weren’t here it would be a nightmare,” Arnold said. “The transportation cost is astronomical.”

Avoiding detention

One of the first responsibilities of law enforcement is protection and public safety, Hudson said, and the juvenile detention center plays a role in that public safety.

“Just like a jail costs money, the juvenile detention center costs money — they all cost money, but the purpose is to ensure public safety,” Hudson said. “It was never a question of efficiency in the costs. We have as efficient an operation as we can.”

But having that operation in place is a must, he said. The detention center not only houses young offenders, but it works as a deterrent. In the 1990s, the county had only one cell in which it could place juvenile arrestees.

“From 1994 to 2001, the offending youth knew I had no place to put them, they knew we had a very restricted place when we had availability,” Hudson said.

“(The center) has an effect simply because it is there.”

Likewise, Hudson said having the juvenile justice center is part of what makes incarceration alternatives such as drug court, the adolescent opportunity program and the probation program work.

“What makes all these programs work, what makes them successful for the kids that do succeed in these programs, is they know there is a hammer at the end of the road, and that hammer is the detention center,” Hudson said.

“It is an incentive to get them to do the type of programs that are aimed at turning them into productive citizens.”

Alternatives to detention are often the preferred option, especially if detention means having to house juveniles in out-of-county facilities or at the state training school.

“When you do that, they — the juveniles — go, and when they come back, you’re bringing the problems of those communities back here,” Hudson said.

Final count

Arnold said Friday he was only housing two rather than the average of five inmates. There are a few reasons that numbers at the center have been low in recent years, Hudson said.

The first is that whenever the juvenile court system implements a new alternative to detention, the census drops. The second is that in the last 10 years — basically, since the juvenile center opened its doors — youth crime has been in a downward trend.

The judge said that the detention alternative programs for youth, which are largely grand funded, have been shown to work. But there’s also 4 percent of the population that will either be deemed unsuitable for or won’t heed the lessons of detention alternatives.

And that’s why the detention center has to be here, Hudson said.

“I wish we wouldn’t have to have a jail or a detention center or anything like that, but we don’t live in a perfect society.”