Meetings are usually boring. Not this one.
It was mid-December, just three days after the mass shooting of children in Newtown, Connecticut. The Deschutes County Commission was sitting at the head of a table in a room packed with attorneys, advocates and others who work with kids in Central Oregon with a history or violence or crime.
The people in this room sat up straight. They leaned forward. They listened carefully.
The question: Just how much would the county commission cut back on incarceration for these troubled young people in order to make more room for jailing adults? Currently, the juvenile jail offers as many as 48 beds. If adults are moved to the current juvenile jail, youth will be moved to a much smaller facility offering as few as 10 beds.
If the commission does cut back detention for youth, a group of judges, attorneys and other critics say this will increase public safety risks and redefine a key portion of our juvenile justice system—a multi-faceted program that is known in the nation as a model of what juvenile justice should look like.
These people say it would be a break from a long-term community vision for providing top-notch services for young people in crisis. It's a vision that's been in place since the early 1990s, when a handful of youth advocates garnered state and federal support for expanding youth services, including building a detention center. The presiding judge of the Deschutes County Circuit Court put it to the commission this way:
"Whether you go down to 10 or 12 beds," said Presiding Judge Alta Brady, "you are making a philosophical change in the way we treat youth in this community."
For other youth advocates, it's not just a question of philosophy, it's a question of following through on that early vision or capitulating.
"In the biggest global sense, we have a state-of-the-art facility. What does it mean when a community in a big symbolic sense backs off this commitment?" said Chris Gardner, a Bend defense attorney who represents young people and who was instrumental in the creation of the KIDS Center.
There is no doubt the Deschutes County Commission has a difficult decision to make.
For years, the 228-bed adult jail north of Empire Avenue off Highway 20 has been unable to accommodate the needs of the community. Overcrowding has been managed through matrixing, which means letting out adults who pose fewer risks, or by sending some prisoners to neighboring counties. But Deschutes County Sheriff Larry Blanton has been very vocal—those options aren't cutting it anymore.
"We are maxed out on jail beds," said Blanton.
In 2010, voters turned down a $44 million adult jail expansion plan, which would have added about 400 beds. Earlier this year, Blanton requested that the county issue bonds to pay for a smaller expansion, but that would have required the county to issue about $10 million in bonds.
In the meantime, the 48 available beds at the juvenile detention facility are greatly underutilized, according to public safety officials and county commissioners. Last year, during the busiest month for the detention center, only about 14 youths were housed at the facility, and several of those were youth from other counties, according to statistics from Deschutes County Juvenile Justice. In fact, the number of youths housed in detention in Deschutes County since 2007 has been declining by about 11 percent per year, according to statistics from the program.
"The long and the short of it is the juvenile facility is underutilized," said Blanton.
And so, back in September, the county commission hired Karen Chinn, of Chinn Planning, to determine where to move the juveniles to make way for the adults.
At the December meeting, Chinn offered five options. See our sidebar for the cost breakdown and details about each option.
For now, the county commission is tentatively pursuing Option 3—a renovation of the sheriff's work-release facility, which will offer between 10 and 12 beds. The commission has promised the sheriff will move juveniles by July 1 and architects are currently drawing up plans with an eye toward meeting that deadline.
It's a disappointing outcome for Ken Hales, the director of juvenile community justice for Deschutes County, who told county commissioners that he's heard them ask what is the minimum they can do when it comes to detention.
That outlook might work out all right "until something happens," said Hales.
Still, every county employee we spoke to for this story, including the commissioners, regretted that juvenile detention would be cut to accommodate the needs of the adult jail population, but all said there really is no better solution.
"It's not a good situation for anybody, and I appreciate Ken Hales' willingness to work with us," said Sheriff Blanton. "With the opportunities that are currently available, right now I see this as the best option."
Critics see it differently.
The move to the juvenile detention center will give Blanton about 88 more beds, according to county officials. That's far short of the 400 beds Blanton would have added in an ideal world, and that's far short of the 144 beds he requested as a stopgap measure earlier this year.
By the same token, moving juvenile detention to a much smaller facility dramatically cuts back holding options for youth and will not accommodate our needs even a few years into the future, according to Chinn's projections. To build a new juvenile detention facility in the future would likely cost around $10 million—about the same price as adding 144 beds to the current jail.
Judge Brady asked the commission to consider whether it was a good use of resources to renovate the current juvenile facility for adults and then renovate another facility for youth.
"It doesn't really resolve either issue," Brady warned the commission. "The court has serious concerns about how you will meet shortterm needs," she said.
The reality, said juvenile services head Hales, is that the county will not be able to meet short-term needs for juveniles with its current intake standards.
That means the juvenile services department will have to further narrow the standards for who is dangerous enough for detention. See our graph about how Deschutes County already has some of the strictest detention intake policies in the state.
"The purpose of detention is to hold kids if they are a threat to themselves or others," said Hales. "We basically have to make a decision to detain fewer [of these] kids."
In effect, the commission's decision to reduce juvenile detention means choosing to eliminate a major rehabilitation option. It also means a greater risk to public safety, said Hales.
"Every time we choose not to detain a kid, there's a certain amount of risk there," he said. "This does require county and public safety to be prepared to embrace a different level of risk."
County Commissioner Tammy Baney said it's not a decision she takes lightly. When we asked her whether cutting back on detention for youth is safe, she told us: "What we are doing with the adult population is not."
This is a crossroads moment for youth detention services, by all accounts.
Off the record, people described the county commission's current plan for cutting juvenile detention as "significant." Judge Brady called it a "policy change." Still, officials said it would likely be a manageable change, even though it would increase public safety risks. If the county goes further, however, and even moves to eliminate detention, that would be a major shift in thinking on youth services, said several sources who are concerned about where the commission is headed with its changes to youth detention.
They have reason to worry.
County Commissioner Alan Unger makes no effort to hide that this current discussion over detention is an opportunity to consider whether we really need this piece of the juvenile services pie.
"We all recognize the fact that government is getting less money into the future," said Unger. "Juvenile detention costs $2.8 million every year. It is a burden to bear."
And so that rapt attention in the December meeting makes sense. This juvenile detention question is, for many, really a question of our dedication as a community to rehabilitating youth now and into the future.
For defense attorney Gardner and others like him, it's time to ask the big question.
"Why are we retreating from this commitment to kids?" he asked.
Juvenile Justice By the Numbers
Total juvenile services budget
Total juvenile detention budget
Percentage of total Deschutes County budget accounted for by the current detention center
Percentage decline in juveniles housed in the detention facility per year over the last five years
Percentage of detention population that is male
Percentage of detention population that is female
Options for Meeting Juvenile Detention Needs
Option 1: Expand and renovate the old juvenile detention facility on Harriman Street.
If a large renovation is completed, this would offer as many as 10 beds, an outdoor recreation area, a visitation area and office space. But the long, narrow corridor prevents constant supervision, kids couldn't be separated into wings based on gender, and other best practices are not met with this option.
Renovation costs: $400,000 to $1.7 million
Operational costs: $545 to $981 per person per day
Option 2: Renovate the "staff secure area" of existing youth detention center
This plan would offer just six beds and would severely limit the safety of youth, particularly when youths of both genders are in the facility. Karen Chinn of Chinn Planning said this is "absolutely not an option."
Renovation costs: $870,000
Operational costs: $908 per person per day
Option 3: Renovate sheriff's work release facility
This is the option the Deschutes County Commission is currently pursuing based on the recommendation of Chinn, who said it comes closest to meeting national standards for detention centers. It offers between 10 and 12 beds, depending on how extensively the place is remodeled, and these beds can be located around a central station. That allows for constant monitoring.
Renovation costs: $755,000
Operational costs: $755 per person per day
Option 4: Construct a new juvenile detention facility
This option would offer up to 24 beds, space for outdoor recreation and options for expansion in the future.
Renovation costs: $9 million to $9.6 million
Operational costs: $296 per person per day
Option 5: Keep juveniles at the current detention center
Though the county commission is not seriously considering this option, it does continue to offer all the beds needed to accommodate juvenile needs for the next 25 years.
Renovation costs: $0
Operational costs: $296 per person per day
Impact of Reduction on Other Counties
Every year for the past five years, the number of youths in our beds from other counties has increased by about 17 percent per year.
Last year that meant we were housing up to seven young people from other counties in our beds each month. Sometimes these kids made up more than 25 percent of the population in our center.
Reducing the number of beds in our detention facility to a dozen or less means we won't be able to meet the current demand for incarcerating our own youth under our current intake standards, let alone the youth of other counties. These kids will have to go someplace else, or, like us, these counties must adjust their own intake policies.
Source: Juvenile Services Needs Assessment Report, prepared by Chinn Planning