For the past 23 years, John Cantrell has reported to work at the Buncombe Regional Juvenile Detention Center, most recently as its director. Last week, he was busy packing his personal belongings after receiving a 30-day notice at the end of May that the facility will be closed.

The notice came from the N.C. Department of Public Safety after state senators included the closing in their proposed 2013-14 state budget. The House’s subsequently released budget proposal also called for closing the facility and one in Richmond County, as well as a youth development center in Kinston. All three centers are slated to close upon adoption of the budget.

Rep. Nathan Ramsey, R-Buncombe, said he submitted a budget amendment in an unsuccessful attempt to get funding restored for the Buncombe County center, which is in Swannanoa.

“I don’t think it is practical to close a facility in our community and have to transport these young people to Alexander and Gaston counties,” Ramsey said, referring to the nearest juvenile detention centers. “Is it realistic and practical to have to transport these juveniles 100 miles or further and then back to these western counties for their court appearances, doctor appointments and other appointments?”

The closings may be a short-term solution for balancing the state budget; however, the long-term consequences and costs to local governments may outweigh the benefits, Ramsey asserted.

There has also been discussion about raising the state’s official juvenile age from 16 to 18 — a move that would bring new impacts to the juvenile justice system.

“The Department of Public Safety carries out North Carolina’s juvenile code as set by the General Assembly and would continue to do so should the legislature increase the age at which individuals are considered juveniles,” said Diana Kees of the Department of Public Safety Communications Office. “However, in order to implement any changes successfully, the law must be accompanied by the appropriate resources.”

“The ‘juvenile age’ bill (HB 725) has many variables and has gone through different iterations,” Kees noted. “Until it becomes law or until a fiscal analysis of the bill in its current form is completed, it is not known how much it would cost to implement or how many additional staff would be necessary to carry out its provisions.”

Reasons for reducing the number of detention centers

The elimination of the two detention centers leaves six detention centers statewide for juveniles awaiting court appearances or placement in a treatment facility or community program. The N.C. Division of Juvenile Justice also monitors the operation of three county-run detention centers, in Durham, Guilford and Forsyth counties.

The Buncombe County facility provided temporary housing for juveniles from 16 western counties.

The decision to close that center and the one in Richmond County was based partly on a declining census at the two facilities, according to Kathy Dudley, deputy commissioner of facilities for the Division of Juvenile Justice.

The shrinking numbers are due primarily to measures adopted by the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1998. Similar to the state’s mental health reform, efforts are now being focused on community-based programs that can help youthful offenders stay out of trouble and maintain a productive lifestyle.

“We have been able to reduce the number of detention stays through prevention programs, early intervention and disposition options,” Dudley said. The Division of Juvenile Justice partners with Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils in each county. There are also home-based services, structured supervision programs, youth mediation programs, runaway shelter care, temporary therapeutic foster care through county social services departments, and other alternative programs.

Juvenile arrest rates have been declining for several years, noted Eric Zogry, Juvenile Defender for the state of North Carolina, but he said he wonders if the remaining detention centers will be able to accommodate the additional juveniles displaced by the planned closings.

The maximum capacity at the Buncombe detention center was 14 beds, but that does not mean that 14 juveniles were housed there at all times. A total of 149 young people were housed at the center during the last fiscal year, Cantrell said.

With the closure of the centers in Buncombe and Richmond counties, the capacity of the remaining state-operated juvenile detention centers is a mere 126 beds.

The Department of Public Safety and the state of North Carolina own the property and buildings for the Buncombe and Richmond juvenile detention centers. State law requires the DPS to consult with the county or municipality in which the facility is located, elected state and local officials, and with state and federal agencies about the possibility of converting the facilities to other use.

The Department may also consult with any private for-profit or nonprofit firm about the possibility of converting the facilities, giving priority to other criminal justice uses.

“Once the centers are closed, it can be very expensive to reopen them, because the buildings need to be brought up to code, and certified staff to operate the facilities must be hired, which takes time to complete,” Kees said. Funding to reopen centers would have to be appropriated by the General Assembly, she added.

The cost of operating juvenile detention centers is another factor that prompted the closings, Dudley said. The expense is more than that for adult prisons, she noted. Read more here about the cost and occupancy of prisons located in Western North Carolina.

The average length of stay for juveniles at the Buncombe facility was approximately 13 days. The facility was designed for short-term detention, but the lengths of stays depended on individual court orders.

However, juvenile detention centers must always be fully staffed, as juveniles could be brought in at any time. The centers must always have one male and one female staff member on duty at all times, to complete initial processing of juveniles of both genders. There also must be staff on hand to provide nutritional and educational services.

The Department of Public Safety has been funding operational costs for the Buncombe center, which last year totaled $1.2 million. The Division of Juvenile Justice pays half the cost of actual placement of juveniles in a detention center. The current statewide average cost is approximately $244 per day. The state pays $122 and the county is billed $122 per juvenile per day, according to Kees.

Juvenile detention centers provide services and programs for juveniles based on their individual needs. Upon admission, each youth receives a mental health screening. More comprehensive mental health and substance abuse assessments are completed when screening indicates a need, Kees said.

Closings may create hardships for law enforcement, attorneys, families

Cantrell, who served as a supervisor prior to assuming the director’s post, said he will not know if he has a job until after the state budget is signed. The same is true for other employees. The center usually has a staff of 22; however, there are currently only 17 employees, with the other positions vacant, he said.

“We will meet with human resources staff after the budget is signed to find out what happens next,” Cantrell said. The DPS will be working with employees of the two closed centers to place them in jobs within the department or state government for which they qualify, Dudley said.

For many young people in the system, the detention center option is being replaced by other alternatives, Dudley said, such as electronic monitoring, runaway shelters and other programs that can provide supervision of those who can be maintained in a less-restrictive environment.

Those from WNC who can’t be managed by such means will likely be sent to the Alexander Juvenile Detention Center in Taylorsville, she said, which will mean longer driving times for law enforcement officials and family members.

The greater distance will also create a hardship for defense attorneys, making it more difficult to communicate with their clients, Zogry said.

“It is a longer process for attorneys to gain the trust of young clients,” he said, adding that one hopeful outcome of the changes will be that judges will take the distance to the nearest detention center into account when it comes to disposition of certain cases.

Tamar Birckhead, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, is adamant that there are usually better options than detention centers for young people who break the law.

That is particularly true if stays at detention centers result in increased rates of recidivism, she said.

“There are many research studies that demonstrate that community-based treatment for young offenders is more effective than removing children from their homes and neighborhoods and locking them up in punitive settings,” Birckhead said.

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Peggy Manning is a contributing reporter for Wmforo. Contact her at [email protected].

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