The Assumption Parish Youth Detention Center in Napoleonville, which last year housed juvenile offenders from more than 20 agencies, is in danger of closing unless enough agencies agree to contract annually for space at the center, the sheriff-elect said.
The center, which opened in summer 2013 to replace one that closed in St. James Parish that same summer, operated at a deficit of approximately $200,000 for the first six months of the 2015-16 fiscal year, said Assumption Parish Sheriff-elect Leland Falcon, who was elected Oct. 24.
Since Jan. 1, he’s been transitioning into his new office, which he officially assumes on July 1, also the beginning of the new fiscal year.
“It has been operating at a loss for the last two years. I would like to keep the center open but it has to be self-sustaining,” Falcon said of the detention center. “I’m not going to operate it on the backs of the taxpayers.”
The facility, located on La. 1008, is owned by the Assumption Parish Police Jury and is leased and operated by the Sheriff’s Office.
Falcon said the projected cost of operating the center during the 2016-17 fiscal year is $2.1 million. The center houses juvenile offenders from 10 to 16 years old who are waiting to be adjudicated.
His proposal for the 40-bed center is for 32 beds to be contracted for the year at a daily rate of $197.25, an increase from the previous $130 per day rate. Those signing the contracts would agree to pay for the number of beds they reserve each day, whether or not they have juveniles occupying the beds.
Four beds are reserved for Assumption Parish, leaving four beds available to any agency, Falcon said. The rate for non-contract beds would be $250 per day per bed.
“We may consider the $250 rate for contract agencies who exceed their limit,” Falcon said.
With or without a contract, agencies are billed for other expenses such as medicine or doctor visits, which has been the practice since the center opened.
Ascension and St. Charles parishes are the only two that currently have contracts for a guaranteed number of beds at the center.
However, those two parishes have been paying the same rate, $130 a day, as those without a contract, which Falcon hopes to change by giving those with contracts a preferential rate.
Other agencies are now considering Falcon’s new proposal.
The sheriff-elect held a meeting with representatives of many of the agencies in late March.
“I’ve asked for commitments and contracts by April 20, but if a conflict with parish government meetings creates a conflict, I may be able to extend that to mid-May at the very latest,” Falcon said.
“If we don’t reach that number (of 32 beds contracted), we’ll have to close,” he said.
Both Ascension and St. Charles parish officials said they plan to continue their contracts at the higher rates Falcon is proposing.
Ascension Parish is three years into a five-year, $456,000-a-year contract for 10 guaranteed beds, said Kyle Gautreau, communications director for Ascension Parish. The contract is paid with a 1-mill parishwide property tax, he said.
“We’re talking in collaboration with the Sheriff’s Office and the judges,” Gautreau said. “The conversation is around an increase” in the contract rate.
Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said the survival of the youth detention center “is vital.”
“The judges are very sensitive to removing kids from their homes,” Wiley said.
That means, he said, the juveniles at the center “need to be there” for misdemeanor and felony arrests and are typically “chronic, habitual offenders or violent offenders.”
St. Charles Parish also plans to continue the three-bed contract it’s had with the center for several years, said Billy Raymond, St. Charles Parish chief administrative officer.
“Over the last few years, it’s cost $150,000 to $160,000 annually,” Raymond said of the contract.
“We’ll have to absorb that increase,” he said of the proposed hike in the daily rates at the Detention Center.
“Is that a wise investment? I think it is,” Raymond said.
The alternative, he said, is to pay to house the juveniles at youth detention centers farther away — along with the transportation costs of getting the juveniles to and from court in St. Charles Parish.
St. James Parish is considering contracting for three beds, said Sheriff Willy Martin, who said he’s been in discussions with St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel and Falcon.
Judges from the 23rd Judicial District, which encompasses Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes, urged Falcon to find a way to keep the detention center open, Judge Tess Percy Stromberg said.
Stromberg said the judges first learned about the center’s financial predicament at a meeting in February.
“He made us aware the center was operating under a huge deficit, and he had no choice but to consider closing it,” Stromberg said.
“It scared us. It’s a very important tool for us,” she said of the center. “We asked him to please give us time to find out what’s going on.”
Falcon provided the judges with the center’s financial information and worked with them on finding a solution,” she said.
Last year, juveniles from 14 parishes and seven municipalities, as well as from the state Office of Juvenile Justice, were incarcerated at the center, Stromberg said.
Some were there for 72 hours, the point at which a judge is required to hold a hearing to determine whether detention should continue, and other juveniles were housed at the center for months until their trial, Stromberg said.
“As judges we need a safe place to put our juveniles,” she said.
The detention center also serves as a “critical deterrent to our young people,” she said.
“One visit is enough for some,” Stromberg said. “Others have to be put there because they are a potential threat to themselves or the public.”
In some cases, youth can be released to their parents for home detention, but that’s not always the best choice, she said.
“If we lose the detention center, what are the consequences?” she said.
“We are going to have a serious problem if that detention center closes,” said Ascension Parish Court Judge Marilyn Lambert, who also handles juvenile cases. “I consider it a crisis.”
If the detention center does close, other centers mentioned as possible alternatives are those in St. Bernard Parish, Madison Parish and Terrebonne Parish.
Several also mentioned the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center near Covington, which was — like the Assumption Parish Youth Detention Center — also facing a question of survival until voters in five parishes agreed April 9 to renew a 10-year, 3-mill property tax to continue operating the center.
Voters had overwhelmingly rejected the same proposal in November.
Ascension Parish Sheriff Wiley credits Mike Waguespack, the previous sheriff for Assumption Parish, for opening the youth detention center in the vacuum left when St. James Parish closed its center over worries of the expense of meeting tighter state regulations that went into effect in July 2013.
“We’re blessed that Sheriff Waguespack had the idea for the center and we’re blessed that Sheriff Falcon has initiated a lot of dialogue on how to reposition himself to make the center fiscally viable,” Wiley said.
In early April, Falcon said, “I am encouraged, based on the support received from the surrounding law enforcement community and judges. We will just have to wait and see.”