Marengo County Commission hears juvenile detention center update

Published 3:56 pm Thursday, October 19, 2023

Marengo County Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Joe Johnson appeared before the Marengo County Commission during its monthly meeting on Oct. 10. Johnson spoke to the Commission at the June meeting and expressed that the county had a “critical need” for an operating juvenile detention center. 

At the October meeting, Johnson provided an update on how the situation has been progressing over the last three months. 

Johnson said that since the June meeting, there were two juveniles who were driving a stolen vehicle and attempted to elude law enforcement. Both were apprehended and one was found to have a pistol on his person. He appeared in juvenile court and was found guilty. He was committed to the Alabama Department of Youth Services and placed in detention in Tuscaloosa “pending placement.”

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“These two juveniles filled our bed space allowed in our contract with Tuscaloosa County Detention. Then we had another juvenile who threatened to kill his principal, counselor, and teacher, and also threatened to blow up his school,” said Johnson. “And on his computer, law enforcement found where he had drawn a diagram of the school of how he was going to carry out this act.”

Johnson said that because bed space was already filled in Tuscaloosa, and considering the third juvenile was a threat to himself and others, Johnson was forced to release another juvenile who had attempted to elude police and was found with a pistol. 

“We had to release him in order to [detain] the young man who threatened to kill his principal, teacher, counselor, and threatened to blow up his school because that is a terrorist act. So we have to release the other young man back into the community and put him back in school,” said Johnson.

Commissioner John Crawford asked if there were any other counties that had available bed spaces, to which Johnson said yes. However, Marengo County does not have contracts with other surrounding counties because the ADYS pays for Marengo juveniles to be detained and will only allow the county two beds. Johnson said the big thing is that ADYS will only pay for two beds, which is why the county has not been getting billed for detained juveniles.

“Yes, there are other facilities that will allow me to put kids in it, but they won’t give me a contract. Which means I may get a bed when I call, and I may not,” said Johnson.

Crawford questioned why the county can’t pay for beds if the dangerous juveniles need to be housed. Johnson said that the county can pay, but every facility he called was already full because most of the detention centers are built for their specific county. To supplement the money, they contract with other counties just like Marengo contracted with Tuscaloosa.

Johnson also said that Marengo County is no longer with Tuscaloosa as the contract expired on Oct. 1. While Johnson did not go into detail about the contract during the meeting, he said Tuscaloosa essentially “kicked us out.” However, Marengo has contracted with the Dallas County Detention Center that has reopened after being severely damaged in the Jan. 12 tornado. Johnson hopes he will be able to place at least two juveniles in that detention center.

“If they happen to have an extra space and I need a third bed, Selma has been known to help me, but that cost would come to the county. After two, the cost always comes back to the county,” said Johnson. “I am still trying not to put that cost on the county and that is one reason I wanted to go with our detention center.”

Johnson said the last detention center he called after the contract with Tuscaloosa ended, the cost was $120 a day compared to Tuscaloosa at $85 a day, and Dallas County is $85 a day. But most other facilities are $127 a day.

“If you get a kid in there for two months and half, that adds up,” said Johnson.

He said he hopes that Marengo County can reopen its own detention center as it will settle the issue. Johnson said that with its own center, Marengo County won’t have to commit its juveniles to the ADYS. 

“These kids know that they can’t be detained if the beds are full. They just keep going out and committing the same acts. But if you catch a kid as soon as he does what he does, then I believe we can deter most of these commitments,” said Johnson.