Island County's juvenile jail costs come under fire

Gerald Murphy, detention manager for the Island County juvenile detention facility, stands with Brooke Powell, the administrator for juvenile and superior courts, in front of the boys’ cells during a recent tour. - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Gerald Murphy, detention manager for the Island County juvenile detention facility, stands with Brooke Powell, the administrator for juvenile and superior courts, in front of the boys’ cells during a recent tour.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

Cutting the sales tax that pays for Island County’s underused juvenile facility, sending teenage offenders elsewhere and then renting space to adult prisoners may free up money to be spent elsewhere, but the idea proposed by Commissioner Kelly Emerson has many hurdles to overcome.

The Island County Superior Court judges and the professionals in the juvenile justice system are dead-set against the idea, which they believe would be detrimental to juveniles and families and may not even save money over the long run.

“These juveniles are part of the community and their families live here. They need to know they are part of the community and not shipped out,” said Brooke Powell, the administrator for juvenile and superior courts. “We are growing adults.”

Plus, Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock points out that there’s a matter of the law. State law dictates that counties with a population over 50,000 must have a juvenile detention facility. And the commissioners, even if the majority was willing, have no authority to cancel the sales tax approved by the voters or divert the money for other purposes.

Number of kids at facility falls

Nevertheless, it’s an idea that has been bandied about the county because of the high cost of the juvenile detention facility and the dramatic decrease in the number of kids that end up at the facility. Last year, Sheriff Mark Brown questioned the commissioners about the possibility of mothballing the facility after hearing Mac McDowell, a former Republican commissioner, propose the idea at a meeting.

Now Emerson, the sole Republican on the board of commissioners, has taken it another step forward. She not only wants to ship juvenile offenders to other counties and turn the juvenile detention facility into a money-maker, she also hopes to somehow abolish the sales tax that supports it.

“It would be a win-win for us,” she said. “It would drop our sales tax lower than Skagit County and we would be able to advertise that.”

Brown, however, said he’s not sold on Emerson’s proposal and doubts that converting the facility into a jail would really be a money-maker. He said the jail’s cost of keeping inmates is higher than what most jurisdictions will pay. Still, he said the notion of temporarily shutting down the facility is worth exploring.

But while her idea has problems, Emerson is correct that juvenile detention is an expensive facility that runs below capacity. The annual budget for the facility has increased from $700,000 when it was opened in 2006 to $1.1 million this year. The facility has 10 full-time and one half-time employees, plus nine on-call personnel. It was designed to house a maximum of 21 juveniles ages of 12 to 17, but the average daily population was just 7.3 in 2010.

Voters passed a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase in 1998 to fund both construction and operation of the facility. Yet the facility had financial issues from the beginning which have stressed the county budget. The architect originally estimated construction at $4.5 million, but it ultimately cost about $6.2 million.

General fund supports operations

With the recession, the sales tax doesn’t raise enough to fund the operations, so the budget is augmented with more than $400,000 from the county’s current expense fund, according to Budget Director Elaine Marlow. That only added to the problems with the impoverished current expense fund, which pays for deputies, courts and general government services. The commissioners have cut $6 million, about 20 percent, of the fund in the last few years.

While most members of the public may not be aware of it, Island County’s juvenile detention facility is an impressive, state-of-the art place that’s run in a very professional, scripted manner. It’s attached to the county’s annex building and is adjacent to, but totally separated from, the adult jail.

There are video cameras nearly everywhere and a staff member in a control booth keeps a wary eye on monitors. The staff keeps constant records of everything that happens. The boys and girls are kept strictly apart. The kids must abide by a precise schedule. There’s even a special isolation room for kids who are out-of-control or suicidal; it’s constantly monitored and has a unique toilet below a grate in the floor.

“We will maintain discipline. That’s what we do best,” detention manager Gerald Murphy said, but adds that most kids actually love the structure since their lives outside are so chaotic.

Murphy said most of the kids who end up in detention have been diagnosed with mental health problems.

Yet juvenile detention does much more than just warehouse kids. Coupeville school district provides a teacher during a school year that’s longer than the regular year. Murphy said teacher John Luvera does an amazing job teaching a wide range of subjects. He contacts the teenagers’ teachers and keeps them up-do-date with their classes so they won’t be behind when they return to school. He even won a grant to purchase exercise and cooking equipment.

A number of evidence-based programs offered to the juveniles, including functional family therapy and aggression replacement training. Powell explained that these programs have been proven to be effective and to save communities money over time by reducing recidivism.

In addition, the facility is built so that juvenile probation services and administrative offices are on the floor below. Powell said that allows the probation officers to contact and begin working with the kids before they get out of detention.

The juveniles wouldn’t have access to the programs or probation officers, Powell said, if they were held in other counties. And their family members and other members of the community would have a much harder time visiting them in other counties.

Murphy said he believes that the respectful interaction between staff members and juveniles is a form of counseling; the kids learn to trust and respect adults by participating in healthy communication.

“We do have staff here that care about kids and care about their well-being while they are here,” he said.

Changes reduce juvenile crime

Yet the costly facility and all the programs only serve a small portion of the county’s juvenile population. Over the last three years, the number of kids in detention has varied from a high of 15 to just one.

The reason, according to Judge Hancock, is largely due to the success of the juvenile justice system. The facility was designed at a time when there was more juvenile crime and more kids were sent to detention. Since then, there’s been big changes in the juvenile courts.

There’s the Becca law, which gives parents and the courts tools for dealing with truant and at-risk kids. There’s the juvenile drug court, which is successful in getting kids off drugs. There’s diversion programs that offer alternatives to detention. And there’s the juvenile detention facility itself.

Prior to the opening of the facility, Hancock said there was usually a lag of up to weeks between the time a kid was sentenced to go to detention and when the county could locate a bed for him or her at a facility in another county. As a result, detention was much less effective as a deterrent.

“Swift and sure punishment for an offense is important. ... The association between behavior and consequences is very important, especially for young people,” he said. “We would lose a lot of ground if we didn’t have a facility.”

Juvenile cases filed slashed

The amount of crime committed by juveniles has sharply decreased. In 1999, the Island County Prosecutor’s Office filed 323 cases in juvenile court; this year, Prosecutor Greg Banks estimates there will be just 100. That’s a 69 percent decrease. Banks said nearly half of the charges filed against kids are for theft or assault.

The numbers, Hancock argued, shows that the facility and programs are working and shouldn’t be tampered with. He said the facility is cost-effective in the long run. Pushing and prodding kids to the right path means the justice system won’t have to deal with him or her down the road.

“The proof is in the pudding,” the judge said. “We’re seeing reductions in the crime rate and success in juveniles’ lives.”



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