Tim Leeds Havre Daily News email@example.com
Local government representatives meeting in Chinook Thursday agreed that planning to re-open a local juvenile detention center was at least worth investigating. “Are we seriously looking at doing this thing or do we just take our lumps and forget it?” Blaine County Commissioner Vic Miller asked the group. The group met to discuss re-opening the center, which closed July 1. Representatives of the Blaine, Hill and Phillips county governments attended the meeting. Representatives o f t h e Fo r t Belknap Indian Reservation and Valley County, which also used the facility before it closed, did not attend. Under state law, juveniles must be housed in a separate facility than adult detainees. Miller said that representatives of the Valley County government told him they were interested in looking into re-opening the facility. Julia Doney, president of the Fort Belknap Community Council, said this morning that Fort Belknap would be interested in using the Chinook facility if it were re-opened. The reservation has had good relations with the Blaine County government and staff in regards to the facility, and it is much easier especially in regards to family visiting the detainees, she said. “It’s a convenience,” Doney said. The group agreed to share information on the exact costs and details of the operation, both historically and what could be expected in the future, and continue its discussion of the issue. Miller said the planning of how the center would be run would impact what the cost of operating it. “I would like to know what you would like this facility to be and then put a dol lar amount to it,” he said. Examining the costs and advantages The group discussed advantages or disadvantages of reopening the center, both financially and regarding benefit to the youths detained, in its meeting Thursday. Miller said the detention center, opened in 2000, had operated with a $20,000 to $30,000 deficit since beginning operations. The participating governments paid in a contractual obligation for beds used to house their inmates. Staffing problems led to Blaine County sending notice June 12 that it could no longer accept new inmates, and that the center would be closed July 1, Miller said. That requires the governments to find other options to house juvenile suspects and offenders, generally requiring transportation and housing of the youths at the centers in Great Falls or Billings. Several experienced employees at the center all found new jobs in a short period of time, Miller said, and Blaine County also was told by the state government in June that it was “noted” that the facility was operating short two part-time positions from the optimum staffing. That would have required hiring and training multiple new staff members in order to keep the detention center open. He said one possible change the Blaine County government is looking at is having all governments share in paying a reduced fee for beds that are not filled. The cost to house an inmate was $220 a day. Miller said sharing a $30 to $40 cost for beds not in use could make up for the operations deficit. He also said the model of operating the facility could change with greater involvement, perhaps the participating governments would want to form a new board. “How would you want this to be governed?” he asked. What is best for the youth? Clark Kelly, Phillips County juvenile detention officer, said a major consideration is what would be best for the juveniles detained. It might be best to try to keep them detained near their homes, families and attorneys, he said. “Some of these kids are criminals and working their way to Montana State Prison, but some are products of their environment,” he said. It might be in the best interests of the juveniles and of the communities to keep them closer to home, Kelly said. Miller agreed. “Quite frankly, that was the original vision of this place,” he said. Hill County Commissioner Mike Anderson questioned the value of that, and said he wants to see it studied. If their environment in part caused their actions, it might be better to remove them from the area, he said. “Most are in this situation due to a bad home situation,” he said. Kelly said that in some situations it might be best to remove the children from their environment, but that generally is not the policy of the state government in those situations. “The state looks at keeping the family together,” he said. What is the cost? The cost comparison of having the local facility versus transporting to Great Falls or Billings also was discussed . The Hill County representatives said that, so far, it is working better to work with the Cascade County juvenile detent ion center in Great Falls. Juvenile probation officer Kevin Buerkle said detention officers from Great Falls will come to Havre to pick up detainees. Previously, Hill County staff members had to transport the youths to Chinook, tying up a member of the already shortstaffed Sheriff’s office. “We lose that deputy,” Anderson said. Buerkle said after the meeting that Hill County has had one juvenile transported to the Great Falls center so far. “It seems to be a pretty good deal for us,” Anderson said. P h i l l i p s C o u n t y Commissioner Richard Dunbar said that wouldn’t be the case f o r h i s g o v e r n m e n t . Transporting a juvenile from Malta to Billings or Great Falls would be difficult, he said. “It’s a big inconvenience,” Dunbar said. “You’re taking a day-long trip or paying the cost.” Kelly said the weather also could play a big part in the advantages. While Phillips County could probably send a juvenile to Chinook if the weather were bad, especially in the winter, having to drive to Billings or Great Falls might lead to a decision just to send the youth home, he said. Anderson noted that another issue is the employment the center provides in the region. “It would be the retention of 10 jobs on the Hi-Line ,” he said. “I’m not sure what value to assign to that, but we need to look at all of it, not just the financial cost.” Huestis said he believes the staff could be found to operate the center if it is re-opened, including several of the facility workers returning if it reopened.