While parishes statewide struggle to place their juvenile offenders, officials in Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes are asking the state to consider a new option: allowing them to open a short-term detention center that wouldn't need the expensive services now required by the state, such as teachers, social workers and access to psychiatric care.
By short-term, these officials are looking at a juvenile staying from a weekend to a maximum of 30 days, said Timmy Roussel, St. James Parish president.
"It's not set in stone. That's what we're exploring," Roussel said.
The lack of detention space for the juveniles "is an issue throughout the state," said Mike Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriff's Association.
Ranatza said members of the association's executive board will discuss the problem at their Jan. 25 meeting.
"It's pretty simple. You've got only 13 facilities and 64 parishes," said Deron Patin, executive director of the Louisiana Juvenile Detention Association.
"There are several that will house juveniles from other parishes" but not all do, said Patin, who is also the interim director of the East Baton Rouge Parish Department of Juvenile Services-Detention.
The Assumption Parish Youth Detention Center, which housed offenders from Ascension, Assumption and St. James, closed in May after a year of operating in the red. Since then, the three parishes have been forced to contract with other centers for up to $250 per day for each offender, but space isn't always available.
The Assumption Parish center opened in 2013 to fill the void left when the St. James Youth Detention Center closed because it was unable to meet the new expensive state standards for juvenile detention centers that went into effect that year.
"Most of the kids are going to a detention facility for a short stay to wait for a hearing in front of a judge," said St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin.
Truancy, shoplifting, simple theft, internet misbehavior — those account for the majority of juvenile offenses, Martin said.
"We'd like to see a short-term incarceration guide and a long-term incarceration guide," said Martin, one of some 20 officials who met last month with the state Department of Children and Family Services, the agency that licenses juvenile detention centers.
The next step is for the agencies to work together on what a subset of regulations for juveniles housed for short-term stays would look like and bring it back to DCFS.
Assumption Parish Sheriff Leland Falcon said that the parishes are looking for new regulations for short-term stays, not just waivers to existing regulations.
"We want something permanent we can hang our hat on," Falcon said.
"Certainly, we're willing to sit down with them and explore that," said Rhenda Hodnett, assistant DCFS secretary of child welfare, who was at the meeting at Convent in St. James Parish last month.
"Hopefully we can make this work," said St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel.
Part of what has changed the landscape for juvenile detention centers is state legislation created in 2010, with the input of several state agencies and associations, that created the juvenile detention center standards that went into effect in 2013.
Among the regulations are staff-to-juvenile staffing ratios of 1 to 8, educational services, an on-staff counselor, dietitians and access to psychiatrists and psychologists.
"A lot of parishes in Louisiana are rural and don't have the tax funding and revenue to justify" opening their own center, said Joseph Dominick, director of the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center near Covington.
That center is supported by a property tax in Livingston, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes and provides juvenile detention services only for those parishes.
Martin McConnell, a spokesman for Ascension Parish Government, said that during the past summer and fall, the parish and the sheriff discussed building a modular building near the Donaldsonville jail to house juveniles.
"It was mutually agreed upon to shelve that plan over concerns about the security and durability of such a building," he said.
Conversations among area officials "are always ongoing," McConnell said, "but learning from the example set by St. James and Assumption, affordability remains the fundamental concern for building and staffing a juvenile detention center."
McConnell was referring to last year's closing of the Assumption Parish Youth Detention Center in Napoleonville, open only three years, after it had operated the previous year at a deficient of approximately $200,000.
Those looking for new regulations for short-term juvenile stays say they know the standards are important.
"We understand if a youth has to be there for 30 days, they have to have those services," said Kim Torres, secretary-treasurer for the Assumption Parish Police Jury.
However, she said, "The average stay is 2 to 10 days. The restrictions they (the state) currently have now do not make it cost-effective for any parish to have a center of their own."
Assumption Sheriff Martin said area officials would like to see a 16-bed detention facility for juveniles built in close proximity to an existing parish jail that would offer nearby medical services as well as a cafeteria and laundry.
"Maybe we could operate it for less than $250 per day," Martin said.
Rachel Gassert, policy director with the New Orleans-based Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, a nonprofit law center that defends the rights of young people in the juvenile justice system, said there might be some push-back to efforts to get new regulations for short-term juvenile detention centers.
"I think there's a lot of consensus around the standards," she said.
"If a kid is only staying a couple of days in detention, he possibly should not have been detained in the first place," Gassert said.
"I think we have a lot of common ground: Let's not adjudicate, let's try every means we can" of keeping a young person out of detention, said Sheriff Martin, in response to Gassert's comment.
"I think every department feels the same, too," he said of area law enforcement.
"As much as we try that, we still end up with kids that need to be incarcerated," Martin said.
If there's no space in a juvenile detention center, youths are released back to their homes or to the homes of other family members, sometimes to an elderly grandparent. It's not always the most appropriate place for the juvenile at that time, Martin said.
Judge Thomas Kliebert Jr., of the 23rd Judicial District Court covering Ascension, Assumption and St. James, said he's heard of recent instances in which juveniles in court have mocked judges.
"They knew the (Assumption Parish) facility was shut down," Kliebert said.