Juvenile center study recommends lowering facility's population

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Feb. 22, 2016 at 10:30 p.m.
Updated Feb. 22, 2016 at 10:35 p.m.

From left, Judge Stephen Williams, Fire Marshal Ron Pray, Judge Jack Marr and Judge Eli Garza inspect the Victoria County Regional Juvenile Justice Center. The facility has a problem with a leaking roof, and there was concern about the smoke evacuation system, but Pray deemed the building safe to occupy.

From left, Judge Stephen Williams, Fire Marshal Ron Pray, Judge Jack Marr and Judge Eli Garza inspect the Victoria County Regional Juvenile Justice Center. The facility has a problem with a leaking roof, and there was concern about the smoke evacuation system, but Pray deemed the building safe to occupy.   Sarah Rothberg for The Victoria Advocate

Consultants on Monday graded ways Victoria County could break even when operating its juvenile detention center.

The best way to do that would be to cap the center's population at 48 with six housing units for post- and pre-trial male and female juveniles.

Historically, the center's average daily population is about 42 juveniles, so a rate of $176 per bed day would be required to achieve full cost recovery, John Johnson said.

Johnson works for a Port Arthur-based consulting firm District Attorney Stephen Tyler hired to study the center. He presented to county commissioners the last two phases of the study, which dealt with the offender and his or her family and the facility.

Johnson recommended with capping the center's population at 48, the county establish a two-tier fee structure, charging the full cost recovery rate for contiguous counties and charging outlying counties, such as Harris and Dallas, at least $210 per bed day.

He thought the county was in a good position to negotiate because pending legislation may make juvenile detention beds more scarce throughout the state.

First, Texas is considering raising the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18. It is one of only nine states in the U.S. not to have already done so. If the age were raised, the center's population could rise by 20 juveniles, Johnson said.

Second, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, promulgated by the federal government, may by October or November 2017 require all juvenile detention centers to have one supervision officer per eight juveniles. Currently, there must be one supervision officer per 12 juveniles.

Victoria's juvenile detention center complies with the current standard.

And lastly, Victoria's juvenile detention center is the only one in the state that accepts post-trial pregnant juveniles.

"That's in high demand," Johnson said. "You have some bargaining power."

If the commissioners were to leave the center as it is now, 24 juvenile supervision officers would need to be hired to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and it would cost the county nearly $950,000, Johnson said.

The center has the capacity to house 72 juveniles.

County Judge Ben Zeller agreed with Johnson that capping the population at 48 and raising rates was the best option.

He will next be working closely with Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Pama Hencerling and Assistant Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Kelly Arnecke on how to roll this out. No rate has been decided. Commissioners would need to approve the rates.

"It's taken us many months to arrive here, but I'm very optimistic about the way that this has gone, and I'm very optimistic that we'll have a good solution that saves us a ton of money and keeps a good facility open to our kids," Zeller said.

The juvenile detention center opened in 1995 after a company called RECOR studied its feasibility.

Johnson said the county had every reason to think the center was necessary then because juvenile crime had been on the rise since 1984. In fact, juvenile crime was a major component of the governor's race between George W. Bush and Ann Richards and the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice, formerly known as the Texas Youth Commission, was building several juvenile detention facilities.

Then, there was a nationwide drop in juvenile crime.

"To this day, nobody can explain why it happened," he said.

Although public safety was not discussed at length at Monday's meeting, as it is sometimes difficult to track whether those who are part of the juvenile justice system go on to lead productive, crime-free adult lives, a few took issue with the consultants quoting a report that found Victoria's one-year re-arrest rate for juveniles to be 40 percent.

Hencerling said the report used data from 2004 to 2012 and compared the county with major metropolitan areas. She said Victoria's one-year re-arrest rate for juveniles in 2014 was 29.60 percent.

Texas' Legislative Budget Board's "Statewide Criminal and Juvenile Justice Recidivism and Revocation Rates" study, issued in February 2015, also found juveniles are re-arrested within three years at a higher rate the more severe their punishment. For example, 62 percent of juveniles are re-arrested after being placed on probation while 70 percent are re-arrested after being placed in a local secure residential facility.

Still, Hencerling refused to think her colleagues' efforts to change juveniles' lives were useless.

"Well, what does matter here in Victoria County is that we hold kids accountable," she said. "Our mandate is to keep the public safe and to hold kids accountable for their criminal actions, so I think a facility like this is very much needed."


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