Juvenile detention center promised by 2005

Every year since 1999, Island County has been collecting more than half a million dollars in sales taxes annually to use to build a juvenile detention facility. And, every year since 1999, the promise has come from county officials that this facility would be built soon.

Now, after five years of collecting this tax, county officials on the Board of Island County Commissioners and in juvenile and family court services are again saying “soon,” even though they are planning to send juvenile offenders out of the county for at least another year and possibly two.

On Nov. 10, members of the Board of Island County Commissioners signed an amendment extending an interlocal agreement between Island and Snohomish counties for the provision of juvenile detention services.

Juvenile offenders arrested, tried and convicted of crimes in Island County — as well as those awaiting trial — are currently transported to Snohomish County’s juvenile facility, where they stay to await trial or to serve sentences. This will be the case until at least early 2005, when Island County may finally have a facility built, according to Mike Merringer, administrator for Island County juvenile and family court services.

“The need for a local facility makes a lot of sense,” he said.

Merringer was not able to give many specific reasons as to why the planned 20-bed juvenile facility has not yet been built, even though state law has required one in Island County for at least 10 years. He noted that planning the facility has taken some time. In the interim, Island County has built a new law and justice building and remodelled the county courthouse and the courthouse annex building.

Merringer said an average of 3.5 juveniles a day in Island County required detention services in 2002, with a maximum of nine on any given day. For the time being, all of them will be shipped off the island for this detention. According to Elaine Marlow, Island County’s budget director, youth who requiring detention services are most commonly sent to Snohomish County, as well Skagit and Whatcom counties for detention and rehabilitation.

Marlow said contracting the services from other counties costs Island County between $150,000 and $200,000 a year, which is less expensive than maintaining operating costs of a new facility on Whidbey Island.

“It’s more expensive to have them here at home,” said Marlow.

But, due to the size of its population, Island County is required to have its own detention facility. In 1998, residents in Island County voted to build a juvenile detention facility on Whidbey Island. Such a center, though expensive will will give juveniles a better success rate in rehabilitation, according to Merringer.

When built, the the facility will not solely be a place of punishment for youth, but will provide youth with a non-punitive environment and get minors convicted of serious crimes rehabilitated while remaining close to family.

The designated taxes to build the juvenile detention center are one-tenth of one percent of Island County sales taxes. Last year, $637,451 was collected from this tax.

Elaine Marlow estimated this week that approximately $650,000 would come from the tax in 2003 and $663,000 in 2004. She said there is currently $3.6 million in the juvenile detention center. Building and operating the center could quickly whittle the funds down, she said. Without paying interest on construction costs, Marlow estimated that it would cost about $800,000 a year to operate the facility.

The detention facility, which would be built adjacent to the county jail in Coupeville, will likely cost between $4.5 and $5 million to build. A the jail and juvenile facility would share laundry and food services.

Marlow it makes no difference how many juveniles are housed in a day. A minimum number of staff will be needed and required to run what she characterized as a “labor intensive” facility.

Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell said this week the costs to operate a juvenile detention center are high. However, he said the money will be money well-spent, despite the fact that detaining minor criminals in county will cost four times what it does to send them to another facility.

“Boy, I ask myself that question all the time,” said McDowell about whether the expenditure is justified.

McDowell said state law requires Island County to house our own juveniles. Had voters not voted to fund the facility, Island County judges could have pressured the commissioners to comply with state law.

“It’s a tough thing to start a new program,” McDowell said. “There’s never new money to start a new program.”

Currently, the juvenile facility is in the design phase. The project could go out to bid in the spring of 2004.

Mike Merringer said he is glad to get the project going and was certain county taxpayers will be as well.

“I think people were expecting to see it soon after the vote was held,” he said. “I know the judges have been very anxious to have this built.”

Alan Hancock, one of two Island County Superior Court judges, said this week he has many arguments justifying the construction of a juvenile detention center in Coupeville. He said juveniles could receive drug and alcohol counseling and treatment while in detention in an island facility, something not all Island County juveniles qualify for and receive if they are taken to another detention center. And while students who wind up locked up could continue their education in another county, Hancock said he feels it is important for them to remain near their parents and relatives.

“At least it would be a locally based education program,” he said.

Washington state law explains requires counties with more than 50,000 residents provide and maintain juvenile detention facilities. The county passed that population benchmark more than a decade ago.

“We’ve been not in compliance with that law for many years now.” Hancock said.

Other benefits of the local facility, Hancock said, include allowing daytime reporting options for teens who are not considered a strong risk to reoffend. Island County will also save money by not having to transport juveniles back and forth between court appearances and out-of-county facilities.

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