FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Forsyth County is one of the few counties in North Carolina that has its own Youth Detention Center, but it could soon be getting out of the business, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Last week, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners approved a budget ordinance for 2014-15, and one of the board-directed initiatives for the coming year is to develop a schedule for phasing out the Youth Detention Center off University Parkway.
County Manager Dudley Watts said he plans to put a work group together and would like to bring the information back to the commissioners by late August. They could make the final decision then on whether to schedule the closing of the facility.
The facility, near the Forsyth County Animal Shelter on Sturmer Park Circle, provides secure, short-term stays for juvenile offenders awaiting court or long-term placement. Though the county gets some reimbursement from the state and other counties to house juveniles, it has not been enough to cover costs.
Over the past four years, the county has spent close to $800,000 a year on average to keep the center going. The center only has space for 16 juveniles, and it needs to stay at capacity to be viable. According to Watts’ budget, the average daily population in 2013 was nine juveniles.
The county would still have youth-detention expenses if it shut the center down. It would be responsible for transporting juveniles to and from detention facilities in other areas of the state and would pay $122 a day per child to the state or another county for housing. That reimbursement rate could change.
The county may need to hire additional sheriff’s deputies for transportation, and it would also have to have a temporary holding facility to keep juveniles separate from adult populations until an appropriate placement is found.
Still, budget staff estimate the county could save anywhere from $158,000 to $223,000 a year if the center closes. The level of savings is dependent on how far away the state decides to place the juveniles.
The state decides where to place juveniles, but county leaders will be talking to officials with the state and Guilford County to see if it is possible to work out some special arrangement to have juveniles sent to Guilford. Watts said Guilford County has a nice new 48-bed facility but does not have enough juveniles to make it economically feasible.
“To me, if Greensboro has that kind of facility and they’re begging for kids so that they can break even, I think that it’s a no-brainer,” Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt said at a budget meeting last Wednesday.
The planning initiative was included in Whisenhunt’s proposed changes to the recommended budget and was included in the final budget on Thursday.
The item was not a new topic for the board. Last year, commissioners directed staff to study options for youth services. Budget and Management Director Ronda Tatum and analyst Kyle Haney presented a study to the board in February.
Tatum told the commissioners then, “It’s a philosophical and financial (question), and there’s no clear right or wrong.”
Earlier this year, Chief District Judge Lisa Menefee and juvenile court judges sent the commissioners a letter stressing the importance of having a center in Forsyth County, as did Chief Court Counselor Stan Clarkson.
A benefit to having a local center is that juveniles remain close to home. The county also has control over the professional services available to the juveniles, such as counseling and substance-abuse assessment. They may not have access to all of those services at other sites.
But counties are not required to provide youth detention facilities.
“A long time ago our board made the decision to go into the youth detention business,” Watts told the commissioners. “I think it served the community very, very well for a lot of years. I think as things change at the state, as the facility ages, it really requires a second look.”
The current facility was built in 1962 and has seen few renovations. If the commissioners want to stay in the business, they will need to look at finding another location, Watts said.
He also said there has been a lot of interest in vacant county property in that area.
Commissioner Walter Marshall was the only commissioner to express major concerns about the possibility of closing the facility.
He pointed out that the county has a first-class animal shelter right down the street but is thinking about closing a facility for young people. He also said the state could decide to send the juveniles far away.
“It’s a state responsibility, and number two, I don’t think we have a facility that needs renovating as badly as that youth detention center does,” Whisenhunt said.
Commissioner Everette Witherspoon said it would be better for young people to be locked up in the nicer Guilford County facility near Piedmont Triad International Airport.
Forsyth County’s 24-hour facility employs 17 full-time and six part-time employees. Commissioner Dave Plyler asked what would happen to those employees.
Watts said staff will look at that as part of the study and see if there is any possibility of transferring some employees to Guilford County.
“The facility is extremely well managed, and I’ve probably not said that enough. What we do out there we do very, very well. That team out there is fantastic,” Watts said.