Officials continue to research answer to youth detention problems

A recent article in the Webster Parish Journal by Bonnie Culverhouse reported that around 15-20 people – law makers, law enforcers and concerned citizens from several parishes – toured Ware Youth Center in Coushatta on March 16 to see firsthand where a juvenile lays his/her head after they break the law.

This is the second meeting put together by Ward I Minden City Judge Sherb Sentell. Youth come before Sentell and Ward II Springhill Judge Stuart McMahen to learn their fates after committing a crime.

The judge said state Sen. Robert Mills, whose assistant Brenda Autry attended the meeting, researched costs for adding to Ware as opposed to building a new facility.

“Sen. Mills got an estimate of about $4.4 million to add 16 additional bed spaces (to Ware),” Sentell said. “To build a new facility would be more than $22 million.”

Ware has 32 beds, but it is only one of 8 detention centers in Louisiana. Caddo Parish’s numbers are so high, they do not accept any juveniles outside their parish. Next to Bossier and Webster parishes, Natchitoches Parish has one of the largest instances of juvenile crime in the north to central Louisiana.

The NPJ reached out to Natchitoches Parish District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington, who also attended Thursday’s meeting. He said that in 2021, 59 percent of Natchitoches Parish juveniles arrested were 17-years-old.

“It’s frustrating because we’ve identified the issue, but no one seems to have a resolution for it,” Sentell said.

The problem extends farther than just more bed spaces, according to Staci Scott, executive director of Ware.

“We need more workers,” Scott said at the first meeting. “We are terribly understaffed. State law says we must have 1 worker per 8 kids, and we can’t keep them. We are probably 10 short in detention and 25 to 30 short overall.”

Detention workers’ pay has been raised from around $9 per hour to $15, but it isn’t enough. Scott said most workers won’t stay for that amount since Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) has tied their hands.

“Since 2012, we can’t even use pepper spray,” she pointed out. “With no control, there just aren’t many people who are willing to be cursed, spit on and had excrement thrown at them for $15 an hour.”

Sentell said he believes 60 to 65 percent of the time there is no recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend) in the case of juveniles.

“That’s because I can’t send the juveniles to detention when I need to,” he said. “It would be a lot higher if I could send them when they first start messing up.”

Ware Youth Center sees about 1,000 kids a year and keeps those statistics.

“They have a 19 percent recidivism rate,” he said. “That shows that if we can get them into detention when necessary, we save hundreds of thousands of dollars having to pay for them as adults to be incarcerated.”

It costs around $300 per day to house a juvenile at Ware, and the parish or city is expected to pay around $110 per day.

Space at Ware has become a real issue since the state legislature passed a law stating 17 year olds are considered juveniles. 

Former Ware director Ken Loftin said the 17-year-olds present a unique group of problems.

“It’s not necessarily the bed space. What happens is, with 15, 16 and 17s, once the juvenile is indicted as an adult, they are put back in the juvenile detention center,” he said. “Once they come back to juvenile detention, they know they’re an adult. They know they have a trial date in the adult court system. 

“They could care less what they do to the staff, the facility or anybody else because nothing they do – besides killing somebody – is going to raise the charge they already have,” Loftin continued.

Sentell said a juvenile detention center advisor who attended Thursday’s meeting suggested a plan adopted by Missouri.

“Seventeen year olds in Missouri start off in a juvenile facility,” Sentell said. “If they get in trouble and cause problems, then they are transferred to an adult facility.”

Sentell’s hope is for suggestions to raise the money not only to add to Ware’s space, but to staff it, as well.

“We aren’t giving up on this,” he added. “There is a way, we just have to find it.”