FLAGSTAFF — Apache County had been paying nearly $800,000 a year to operate its juvenile detention center in St. Johns, spending the money on a required full-time teacher, security guards and other staff.
The problem is that the jail has had few children to house. At times, the detention center had no offenders and averaged 1.7 children in custody at any given time.
Late last month, the county shut down the facility. It now will ship juveniles to neighboring Navajo County after deciding the cost was too much for so few children in custody. Between 15 and 20 employees lost their jobs.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” said Apache County Juvenile Court Judge Michael Latham, who took office in January. “But in the end, especially this year with the statewide budget crunch, it was financially the best choice for the county.”
Apache County will pay Navajo County $90,000 a year to house up to four juveniles in its 24-bed detention center about an hour away in Holbrook. Anything above that budget would run $130 per day per detainee.
The Navajo County facility has plenty of room, with an average population of seven to 12 juveniles in detention daily, county Superior Court Juvenile Court Judge Michala Ruechel said. She typically doesn’t sentence juveniles to the local facility for more than four months and looks at alternative sentences as well, she said.
Navajo County used to take in juvenile detainees from Apache County before 2002. “We certainly believe it’s best to keep the children as close to home as possible,” Ruechel said.
Statewide, the number of children in county juvenile detention facilities is down. Nearly 13,000 juveniles were admitted to county detention facilities in fiscal year 2013 and about 10,000 in fiscal year 2014, said Heather Murphy, a spokeswoman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts. The numbers for the latest fiscal year aren’t available yet, but Murphy said it will be in the 9,000 range.
A handful of counties — Maricopa, Pima, Cochise, Pinal and Gila — also have implemented a program that encourages alternative sentences such as electronic monitoring, home detention or therapy programs rather than time behind bars, Murphy said. Those facilities have shown a 17 percent reduction in juveniles in county detention facilities from 2011 to 2014, she said. The goal is to get all 13 of Arizona’s counties on board.
“What time and experience tells us is that sometimes with juveniles, exposing them to other juveniles who have been in trouble does more harm than good,” Murphy said.
The Apache County Juvenile Detention Center would go weeks or months without having anyone in custody, yet it was required to have a full-time teacher on staff, a male and female security officer, manager and other staff year-round, Latham said.
The county hasn’t eliminated the budget for juvenile detention because the money that comes from a special taxing district is used to pay Navajo County and can be used for related expenses, such as a transport vehicle, a driver and upgrades to the juvenile court, Latham said. Still, he said “we anticipate it being a significant savings for the county. It’s going to be a big help.”
The county hasn’t identified another use for the building that is a short walk from the Superior Court. But Latham said it could be reopened if needed.