GONZALES — Having lost access to its juvenile detention center May 31, the Ascension Parish Council agreed Thursday to a two-month deal with St. Bernard Parish Sheriff James Pohlmann to send youthful offenders in Ascension to his 36-bed facility in Chalmette.
But council Chairman Randy Clouatre and Parish President Kenny Matassa also cautioned that the agreement is a “stop-gap” fix while law enforcement, judicial and local government leaders inside the 23rd Judicial District Court system’s three-parish jurisdiction mull a long-term solution.
“This is an issue that burdens all,” Clouatre told the council.
Assumption Parish Sheriff-elect Leland Falcon announced this spring he would have to close the Assumption Parish Youth Detention Center unless he was able to lock down guaranteed contracts for his 40-bed facility in Napoleonville.
Although Falcon was able to get some agreements, the sheriff-elect said it wasn’t enough to stem the annual shortfalls his office had been facing since it took over the responsibility from St. James Parish in June 2013.
Then-Sheriff Mike Waguespack, whom Falcon defeated last fall, agreed to handle several parishes’ juvenile prisoners, including Ascension’s and St. James’, after an upgrade in state guidelines for youthful offenders brought about the closure of the St. James Youth Center in 2013.
Clouatre noted that one option being considered for the three-parish district is a new facility. The 23rd Judicial District encompasses Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes.
In August 2013, the Ascension Parish Council agreed to levy a 20-year, 1-mill property tax, which had been long available to the parish in state law but not used, to help support higher juvenile costs when the switch was made to Assumption Parish.
Annual surplus from the tax, which did not need voter backing, also was to be set aside to one day build Ascension’s own facility, officials said then.
Clouatre said the property tax now generates about $1.2 million per year, but officials are trying to determine the cost of building and operating a new juvenile facility and determine how many beds will be needed.
Pohlmann said in an interview Thursday afternoon that since the Assumption facility has closed, some of the sheriffs in the River Parishes have reached out to him for bed space.
St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said this week his parish is looking at both St. Bernard and Terrebonne parishes for juvenile beds.
“We’re hammering out some details in the contracts,” Pohlmann said, “but I was willing to do some limited beds for them to help them out in the interim because I think they’re looking for a more long-term solution.”
He said that prior to the new agreements, his juvenile facility averaged about 12 filled beds per day.
Under Ascension’s six-bed deal, the parish will pay $200 per day per bed and will pay all transportation costs to and from Chalmette for court appearances in Ascension, all prescription medication costs and all medical costs beyond “basic on-site medical treatment as required by law.”
On or before July 31, Ascension also has an option to renew the agreement for another two months to a year.
Matassa told the council Thursday that the parish averaged 10 beds last year but also cautioned that the number of beds needed could increase significantly as the state moves to raise the age of adulthood for minor crimes from 17 to 18.
“Like Mr. Clouatre said, we’ve been talking and negotiating with the judges and the sheriffs on the matter,” Matassa said.
“So we’ll keep y’all informed, and we got to do what we got to do.”
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.