By Pat Culverhouse
An announced shutdown of an area juvenile detention center has added one more headache for those looking for solutions to major problems in housing juveniles awaiting the disposition of their case (pre-adjudication) in the justice system.
Minden City Court Judge Sherb Sentell presides over juvenile cases and adult misdemeanor cases, but it’s the juvenile side of his calendar that has now become a larger problem. Johnny Gray Jones Youth Shelter in Bossier City has announced it will shut down Nov. 30 due to a lack of funding.
Closure means fewer spaces available for an already overloaded juvenile holding system, Sentell said. With Johnny Gray Jones closing, the only current alternative is to house those juveniles at Ware but Webster Parish has only two bed spaces there.
“We only have two jail spaces for the entire parish for violent or felony offenders at Ware. Johnny Gray Jones provides us with spaces for truancy and ungovernable juveniles. With Johnny Gray Jones closing we’re at a crisis,” Sentell said. “It’s shutting down, and we’re losing more than 20 beds that provide spaces for ungovernable juveniles and juveniles who will not go to school.
“Johnny Gray Jones serves Bossier, Caddo, and Webster parishes. Those kids were cared for, fed, schooled and counseled at Johnny Gray Jones and now we lose those resources. That’s another tool judges and enforcement will not have when dealing with kids who refuse to go to school or follow the directives of their legal custodians,” he said.
Sentell said losing Jones means losing an asset that might eventually help keep juveniles out of the ultimate system, the adult correctional system. More facilities like Jones, not fewer, might also help if, as rumors suggest, governor-elect Jeff Landry seeks to lower the age from 17 to be considered a juvenile and placed in an age-appropriate setting.
“Personally, I think keeping 17-year-olds in the juvenile system is the right thing,” he said. “We were the next to last state to do this. At 17, we still have the ability to save them. They are, for the most part, high school students. The bottom line is they’re still in school and we still have the ability to educate and save them.”
Shutting down juvenile facilities seems to be mostly a cost-saving measure, and it is not the right answer, Sentell said.
“We’re not taking care of them. It’s my personal opinion, but in Louisiana, we’d rather save money than take care of our kids,” he said. “This is short-sighted because if we cannot save these juveniles, the taxpayers of Louisiana will pay hundreds of thousands more to incarcerate them as adults.”
One other juvenile detention facility in northwest Louisiana, Ware Youth Center, is located outside Coushatta. In the past, there have been rumors the facility would be moved or closed due to funding issues. In a worst-case scenario without Ware, juveniles awaiting adjudication might have to be shipped far from home, Sentell said. That, he said, is an expensive proposition.
“Parishes in east Louisiana send their kids to Alabama for $400 a day,” he said. “The next best option for Webster Parish, if we cannot solve our own problems, would be to use the Jackson Parish Sheriff’s program. The Jackson Parish Sheriff has a program that asks participants to sign a contract for $105 a day for each bed space to reserve a specific number of spaces, then it costs $175 per day regular fee if you use the bed space.” If you do not have a contract with them, they charge $350 a day to house juveniles.
Sentell’s recommendation, based on his analysis of the problem, is to set up regional centers where juveniles are not too far from their families and the court having jurisdiction. Regional centers would be more efficient on a cost basis.
“It’s more efficient if you have to have regional costs split between multiple parishes, but you must get that past the legislature. It would be a hefty lift, but it’s a statewide need,” he said.
Currently, Ware Youth Center allocates its bed spaces between several entities including the parishes of Bossier, Webster and eight others plus the city of Natchitoches. To keep up with increasing needs, Sentell believes an additional 16 beds are needed at Ware. A four-million dollar add-on at Ware would make sense, considering a start-to-finish juvenile facility would run about $24 million, he said. However, Ware has indicated they cannot staff any expansion and cannot even keep fully staffed at the present.
Sentell thinks it would be beneficial if the Webster Parish Police Jury would form a subcommittee to study the issue and make recommendations to the police jury and to Senator Adam Bass and Representative Wayne McMahen. This subcommittee would simply gather knowledge on all the rules and requirements to house juveniles so that the committee could make intelligent recommendations on the best and most cost effective way(s) to solve the problem.
“I’d love it if Webster Parish could be self-sufficient like Jackson Parish. If we had eight bed spaces where (Springhill City Court) Judge (Stuart) McMahen and I could put pre-adjudicated juveniles, that would solve a long-term need. If we can’t afford it, we can partner with other parishes that are also desperate. And, I believe if we can find someone to operate the juvenile center other than the Sheriff, we can enter into some type of joint endeavor agreement with the Sheriff, the school board, both Minden and Springhill, and the police jury that would be cost-effective and solve our problem.”
Money for the juvenile system is, in Sentell’s words, “…a challenge because juvenile detention doesn’t pay anything. They don’t pay fines. Legislators have discussed having juvenile court hearings to determine if the guardians have the financial means to help with some of this incarceration expense, but that has not gained much momentum. That’s a political decision that the legislature hasn’t been keen in looking at and most families do not have the means to pay the pre-adjudication costs.”
And since money is an issue, Sentell suggested it might take a farsighted individual to see that paying $310 a day for a couple of days of juvenile detention might save hundreds of thousands of dollars in adult prison if that juvenile is changed. “That’s a no-brainer,” he said.
“We can’t have a south Chicago scenario where a 12-year-old can shoot somebody and then be turned over to the parents,” he said. “If we don’t have a local facility, we’ll be turning our offenders over to be with Shreveport, New Orleans and Baton Rouge juveniles or possibly out-of-state.”
“Judges can only advise our elected official of matters that affect the judiciary and juvenile justice and warn our local and state elected officials that we need help,” Sentell said. “It will be like a tsunami if we don’t get in front of it. We need to budget money for this even though we don’t have a clear plan on how to spend it right away…put aside small increments and then we can maybe build a facility. All government entities would need to do it.”
Dealing with juvenile offenders from the bench has its ups and downs, but Sentell said positive outcomes keep him optimistic.
“I’m determined to keep working on finding a solution to this problem. I see it every day and when we save one kid it’s awesome, because this was a kid that was going down and we intervened,” he said. “We rescued them and we’re very proud of those who we can rehabilitate and help become productive members of society.”