Parishes schedule meeting to study detention solutions

By Bonnie Culverhouse

(Editor’s Note: This is the second of two parts concerning juvenile crime and lack of detention space in north Louisiana parishes. See Tuesday’s Webster Parish Journal for the first part.)

If the group learned anything at last week’s meeting concerning juvenile pre-adjudication detention, it was the problem is much bigger than just Webster Parish.

“To find a solution, we need to engage with all the other parishes who send juveniles to Ware (Youth Center),” said City Judge Sherb Sentell.

Ware serves the parishes of Bossier, Webster, Red River, Natchitoches, DeSoto and Sabine. Bienville and Claiborne Parish police juries opted out of the program that requires them pay a portion to house juveniles at Ware.

However, the folks who gathered last week – members of parish and city law enforcement (sheriff, police, city marshal and Probation & Parole) a representative from Webster and Bossier Parish police juries, Bossier-Webster district attorney, city officials, school officials, State Sen. Robert Mills and State Rep. Wayne McMahen – agreed Bienville and Claiborne should be included in the discussions.

“Lincoln Parish has also said they would like to be included,” Sentell said.

“We also need to find a way to raise the hourly wages of Ware detention officers because they are having difficulty now filling their positions at the current hourly wage rate and under the current administrative restrictions,” Sentell said. “So the solution must involve funding the construction cost, include additional revenue for detention officer wage increases, and hopefully reduce or remove some of the restrictions imposed on juvenile detention officers.”

Most persons present at the meeting agreed the problem has been increased since the legislature dropped the juvenile age to 17. There are legal restrictions for housing 17-year-olds with younger children.

“We have three or four 17-year-olds at Ware now,” said Staci Scott, executive director at Ware. “They could be housed together but not with younger kids. There are no older youth at Ware.”

Bossier/Webster District Attorney Schuyler Marvin pointed out that often legislators are approached for money and legislation to help, but they want to know what the governmental entities in a parish will do.

“Bossier Parish began putting back $50,000 a year to build a detention center,” Marvin said. “If you go to the legislature, already having some money, it might make these guys’ jobs a little bit easier than just saying we need some capital outlay money.”

Marvin suggested even a lower amount than $50,000 would be beneficial.

“We are 15,000-dollared to death,” said Webster Parish Police Jury President Jim Bonsall. “I know it’s a problem, but I don’t know how much longer the local people can keep funding the state’s mandates.”

Sen. Robert Mills put the ball back in the parish’s court.

“Mister, these are your children,” Mills said. “They are not the state’s children.”

“But it’s your rules,” Bonsall said. “So, what can we do?”

“This is a crime issue, and it’s all over the state,” City Marshal Dan Weaver added.

“The governor is much aware of the problem,” Mills said, “and much motivated to do something about it. He probably just doesn’t realize the extent of North Louisiana’s problems.”

Mills added that he and Rep. Wayne McMahen need to “get in front of the governor and DCFS (Department of Children & Family Services) as a group and get something done.”

There are 32 beds at Ware. Scott said if they exceed that number without special exemption, DCFS could fine Ware $600 per day.

Next to Bossier and Webster parishes, Natchitoches Parish has one of the largest instances of juvenile crime in the north to central Louisiana.

“Natchitoches has a kid – I want to say he was 15 when he committed a murder,” Scott said. “He’s being charged as an adult. We’ve had him at Ware about 450 days, still waiting on him to go to trial. That bogs us down.

“We keep calling asking when he’s going to court,” she continued. “That’s a problem because he is being charged as an adult, but because of his age, he’s being left in detention.”

Bienville Parish Sheriff John Ballance said juvenile crime is up in his parish, also.

“We’ve been having so many problems with juveniles,” Ballance said. “We had one case where two juveniles broke into a house and stole some things. I looked all weekend for a place to house them – Mississippi, Texas, Ware. We couldn’t find the mother on one child, and we had to put him in an interview room at the office and have one of the deputies sit with him until we could find the mother the next morning.”

Ballance said that while the police jury opted out of using Ware for his parish, he intends to encourage at least a couple of members to attend the next meeting.

There are 8 detention centers in Louisiana, however, Caddo Parish’s numbers are so high, they do not accept any juveniles outside their parish.

Courses of action to make progress on addressing these issues include:

1. Request a letter from Jim Bonsall on behalf of the WPPJ not to house any juveniles at Ware who are 18 or older (not currently an issue but a good practice);

2. Contact our counterparts (Sheriffs, Police Jurors, State Representatives and Senators, School Board Superintendent and Board Members, Police Chiefs, Marshals, District Attorneys, and juvenile Judges) in the other six parishes who send juveniles to Ware to get them on board with our initiative and hopefully get them to attend our next meeting; 

3.  Ask Patrick Jackson if a collaborative endeavor agreement would be possible between all entities having equity in resolving this conflict so that Cities, Parish Police Juries, Sheriff’s Departments, School Boards, etc. could divide and share the financial costs required to see this project succeed;  

4. Staci Scott and Sherb Sentell were asked to send a list of recommendations they think may have merit in alleviating the current problem.  Ms. Scott and I have compiled a tentative list of recommendations.  See attached.  This list can be modified as additional ideas are submitted and/or this list is edited and vetted.   

5. Block out the date of Thursday, March 9 at 2 p.m. to tentatively meet again to discuss this issue with counterparts from the other parishes.  Location of meeting to be determined.  

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