Concerned officials seek answers to lack of space for juvenile offenders

By Bonnie Culverhouse

Where do problems begin with juvenile crime? Many say it starts at home … or the lack of a home life.

Where do these problems end? Realistically, many of these children are already in the system.

Headed by Ward I City Judge Sherb Sentell, a group of concerned officials in Webster Parish gathered last week to seek answers about pre-adjudication detention.

“I called the meeting because I need resources beyond our current capability,” Sentell said. “Reasonable minds can disagree on who should pay for it, but I hope everyone now realizes something must be done.”

According to reports, there is a 60 to 65 percent chance once a child or teen spends a couple of nights at Ware Youth Center, they never want to see it again.

But Ware is full … a head in all 32 beds. Then what happens? The kids are returned to the streets, and what kind of signal does that send?

“All we need are six more beds,” Sentell said.

Ware meets the criteria to double bunk, with a special exemption from DCFS. But space is not the only problem, according to Staci Scott, executive director of Ware.

“We need more workers,” she said. “We are terribly understaffed. State law says we must have 1 worker per 8 kids, and we can’t keep them. We are probably 10 short in detention and 25 to 30 short overall.”

Detention workers’ pay has been raised from around $9 per hour to $15, but it isn’t enough. Scott said most workers won’t stay for that amount since Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) has tied their hands.

“Since 2012, we can’t even use pepper spray,” she pointed out. “With no control, there just aren’t many people who are willing to be cursed, spit on and had excrement thrown at them for $15 an hour.”

There to discuss the issue were 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.

In 2014, Ware contracted with the state to fill vacant beds. At that time, DeSoto, Natchitoches, Sabine, Red River and Webster parishes were under that plan, and at that time, Ware had 34 beds.

Police juries with Claiborne and Bienville parishes declined to participate.

Scott said Natchitoches Parish is one that needs more beds, as well.

“All the other parishes have 2 beds, except Bossier. They have 24,” Scott said. “They are not always at capacity, so they are willing to let us give their empty beds to another parish.”

Sentell asked if there were other parishes in a similar financial situation that may be willing to “come to the table” for discussion.

“Most definitely,” Scott said. “Natchitoches is a sizable parish. And their juvenile crime is up substantially.”

The state would pay a per diem to help keep the doors open. Then, the state Office of Juvenile Justice canceled the agreement and pulled state kids out of the facility, along with some of the funding.

Today, it costs around $300 per day to house a juvenile at Ware, and the parish or city is expected to pay around $110 per day.

Webster Parish Police Jury pays if the Webster Parish Sheriff’s Office or one of the smaller jurisdictions makes the arrest. According to a WPPJ spokesperson, the smaller towns are asked to pay it, however, they most often call the sheriff’s department to make the arrest and WPPJ ends up with the tab. If Springhill Police make the arrest, City of Springhill pays for it. If Minden Police make the arrest, City of Minden foots the bill.

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of two parts addressing juvenile detention and lack of space in north Louisiana parishes. See Friday’s Bienville Parish Journal for the second part where officials discuss the next steps to solving the issue.)

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