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Benton County officials seek increased capacity for incarcerated kids

by Tracy Neal | June 6, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.
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BENTON COUNTY -- Benton County officials are beginning to explore expanding the county's juvenile detention center.

County Judge Barry Moehring recently told justices of the peace about a proposal to add up to 12 beds to the center. Moehring didn't have the project's cost but said he plans to include it in the 2024 budget. There is no plan to seek an additional tax to pay for it.

Holly Foster, director of the center, said the facility's numbers fluctuate, and the center consistently has several youths come in over the weekend, causing the headcount to rise.

"Those new residents will go to court, most will be able to leave, and our headcount goes back down," Foster said, adding the facility needs to be prepared for those flare-ups with more beds.

Foster said the center has been averaging 12 youth per day for the past couple of years.

The facility, which opened in 2012, has 17 rooms, five double-bunked so that it can hold up to 22 youths, she said.

Sixteen residents were being held on May 31, Foster said.

She said more separations come with higher numbers because boys and girls are held separately, as are youths arrested in connection with the same criminal offenses. There are times the offender and a victim, who is also facing charges, are held in the facility, and they must be held separately, Foster said.

Six of the youths in the center are being held on adult charges. Foster said the average length of stay for youth held as a juvenile is 10.9 days, while the average length for youth held as an adult is 84.5 days.

Foster said that once adult-charged youths turn 18, they are held in the county jail.

She said an increase in youths being charged as adults has led to longer stays in the juvenile center.

Benton County Circuit Judge Tom Smith, who presides over juvenile court, said he has not yet been involved in the expansion discussions. Smith said the center has been running at higher numbers over the last 12 to 16 months.

"I do believe, if gun crimes continue to rise, more juveniles will be charged as adults, which leads to longer stays waiting trial and raises a need for more space," Smith said.

Foster said several of the county's youths have been sentenced to the state's Division of Youth Services, and there's a one- to two-month waiting period for youths to be transferred, which leads to longer stays in the center.

The center lost 14 beds when it converted an area into a shelter. Foster said there are three youths in the shelter, which can hold up to eight.

Foster said the shelter has one out-of-county resident while the center has two. The shelter doesn't charge for out-of-county holds, but the center charges $75 per day for out-of-county and Division of Youth Services holds, she said.

Justice of the Peace Joel Edwards said he's waiting to hear more information on the project.

Last year, Washington County voters rejected a proposal to issue up to $113.5 million in bonds to expand the Washington County Jail and up to $28.5 million in bonds for a Juvenile Justice Center expansion. The bonds would have been paid by a 0.25% sales tax that would expire once the bonds were paid.

Print Headline: Juvenile detention center expansion on the table for county


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