Juvenile Detention Center a “critical” need for Marengo County

Published 3:51 pm Tuesday, June 20, 2023

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The need for the Marengo County Juvenile Detention Center to be relicensed and operational was one of the main topics of the June 13 Marengo County Commission meeting. The facility was closed on July 31, 2017 when its license expired.

Marengo County Chief Juvenile Probation Officer, Joe Johnson, appeared before the Commission to discuss the possibility of reopening the center. To get the facility relicensed, the Alabama Department of Youth Services requires that facilities licensed by it be certified “as pre-compliant,” meaning it must comply with the Prison Rate Elimination Act.

The range for a pre-audit varies based on the pre-auditor selected and the base fee is $2,500 and only has to be paid once every three years.

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“We are asking the county to pay that cost for the pre-audit. I’ve begun the process of seeking Alabama Department of Youth Services Foundation and private sector grants to fund the detention center if we get this relicensed,” said Johnson.

The grants would also cover the cost of a director of the facility and the cost of providing an “on call” nurse.

Johnson said the detention center has “section H and section I” that can each hold up to four juveniles each. With eight bed spaces the center could also look at renting some of the spaces out to other counties. Renting spaces would also help in funding the facility.

ADYS allocates a certain amount of funds yearly to Marengo County for juvenile detention services. The funding is currently being sent to Dallas County because that is where Marengo County is housing its juveniles. However, after the January 12 tornado that devastated a large part of Selma including destroying the detention center, Johnson contracted with Tuscaloosa where juveniles are now taken.

“Tuscaloosa charges us $85 per day, per child and that can run up. They’re only contracting us two beds and those two beds are being paid for by the Department of Youth Services,” said Johnson. “But, if a situation came up where I needed a third bed that cost would come on the county. So far, I have been very cautious not to cost the county anything, and I’ve never housed more than two juveniles at a time. But there have been many cases where I have needed to house more than two, but I wanted to keep the cost down.”

Johnson said that he has applied for two grants, and that the grants will be enough to fund the facility.

Johnson also expressed his concerns about the possibility of Tuscaloosa needing the bed space contracted to Marengo County, and Marengo being denied until further notice even though there is a contract in place.

Johnson said there have been situations where local law enforcement has called about juveniles with serious offenses such as “rape, gun possession, assault, and drug possession that required attention.” But due to already reaching the allowed bed spacing in Tuscaloosa or Tuscaloosa needing the space, there was “no alternative but to release those juveniles back into the community.”

“It does not make me feel good when I have to tell the Chief or the Sheriff who have someone who just cut somebody up that, as much as I would like to, I can’t do anything,” said Johnson. “Because I already have someone in detention who just shot someone, or is in on drug charges. So, what do you do? The least of two evils and say there is nothing I can do. In many cases, I’ve had to release someone that I don’t want to release or need to release in order to put someone else in.”

Johnson said reopening the detention center would eliminate that problem.

“We would have eight available bed spaces. Hopefully, we would never have to use all eight spaces. But I would rather have them than need them and not have them,” said Johnson.

Sheriff Robert Alston, Jr. said that the current spaces are functional, but need to be repainted and freshened up before housing juveniles.

Demopolis Police Chief Rex Flowers commented that the county needs to have its own facility due to the expenses and resources needed to transport juveniles to Tuscaloosa or Selma.

“We tie up gas and manpower taking them to Tuscaloosa or Selma or wherever. And when we take them to these metropolitan areas, it’s a training ground for them,” said Flowers. “We’ve had kids who would steal candy, and they go off and then come back stealing cars. So it’s better if we could just keep them here.”

Alston said he has had deputies go to Tuscaloosa with a juvenile only to be told that the center can’t take them. Attorney District Heather Hill echoed Alston by saying that trips to and from Tuscaloosa tie up an officer’s time, along with fuel costs.

Ii is also inconvenient when an officer has to travel back to Tuscaloosa, pick up the child in question, and bring them back to Linden for a court hearing. And, if District Judge Vince Deas believes there is a reason to continue holding the child in the detention center, it means a third trip to Tuscaloosa and back.

“For practical purposes, we would appreciate any consideration to reopening our juvenile detention center. Unlike adult court, Juvenile Court is meant to rehabilitate these kids such that they’re not offending when they become adults,” said Hill. “If we have a local facility they’re not going off somewhere to learn things that are going to cause them more harm in the future. If Mr. Johnson can lock them up for a day or two right here, then a lot of times the mission is accomplished because most of the kids don’t want to go through that again.”