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Forsyth Co. may close youth detention center

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Forsyth County Commissioners are considering closing the youth detention facility in Winston-Salem.

County Manager Dudley Watts explained the center simply costs too much to run and is rarely at capacity.

The facility is near University Parkway next to Animal Control, and has a capacity of 16 juveniles. But it averaged nine per day last year, Watts pointed out. It was never over 12.

"These facilities operate financially better if they're mostly full, just like anything else, because the funding comes half from the county where the youth is from and the other half from the state," Watts added.

He said the state facility would need major renovations or a completely new building at the cost of county taxpayers, which most commissioners do not see as financially sustainable.

A work group will gather information about the best way to phase out the facility.

They plan to work with juvenile court caseworkers to see if Forsyth youth could be transported to the Guilford County Youth Detention Center in Greensboro so they'd still be close to home.

It would also be cheaper to transport the youth to Greensboro versus other state facilities. Ultimately the choice of facility is up to the court system per case.

Durham is the only other county running its own detention center. There are six state youth detention centers located in Taylorsville, Fayetteville, Dallas, Castle Hayne, Greenville and Raleigh, according to the state Department of Public Safety website.

Guilford County's is the largest with 48 beds. The three second-largest facilities each have 24 beds.

Doug Logan is the director of the Guilford County location. He told FOX8 he believes they could house the children who come into Forsyth County's location every year without needing to expand.

As of Monday, Guilford's facility was treating 30 children.

The "phasing out" in Forsyth comes at an interesting time, as the General Assembly considers legislation that would raise the age of juvenile offenders in North Carolina to 18 years old.

Currently, New York and North Carolina are the only states in which 16 and 17-year old offenders are automatically placed in the adult system.

N.C. House Bill 725 allows for 16- and 17-year olds who commit misdemeanors to be handled in the juvenile system.

The bill passed the state House of Representatives with a vote May 21 and will move to the Senate.

Logan said the legislation may increase the number of youth they house, but he does not anticipate it will mean they'll need to expand the Guilford County facility.

If the bill were more comprehensive, such as including 16- and 17-year old felonyoffenders, too, they would likely need more space. But for now he believes they have enough capacity to handle misdemeanor youth.

Logan supports raising the age, saying it will allow them to work with families and hopefully reduce recidivism.

Executive Director of the Center for Community Safety with Winston-Salem State University Alvin Atkinson agrees. "It does cost [the state] more on the front end, as juveniles will be treated. But long run? Keeping them out of the adult system is better for the community, the society is better, families are better," he pointed out.

Guilford County Sheriff B.J. Barnes said the Sheriff's Association does not support raising the age.

He says it's easier to separate inmates by age in a bigger, adult facility. He told FOX8 he does not believe the legislation will pass this year.

Advocates have tried to pass the law for nearly a decade.

Watts said county leaders and law enforcement officials in Forsyth County should be paying attention to what happens with the new law. "I've got concerns about putting 16 and 17-year olds in the system in a facility with a 13- and 14-year old," he said.

Atkinson said youth detention centers are more focused on treatment and believes they are more suitable for 16- and 17-year olds, especially committing minor offenses.

"Raising it at least even on misdemeanors now is definitely a step in the right direction," Atkinson insisted.