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Shut juvenile unit, suggest sheriff and county attorney

Mar 25, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn and Sheriff Skip Hornecker are proposing a plan to close the Lander detention center's juvenile section to better utilize space and improve overall handling of minors.

The two elected officials have presented to commissioners the recommendation that Varn called "extremely controversial."

The pair recommended "we take a very hard look at closing down the juvenile detention center and making it an adult pod again," Varn said.

The proposal includes using youth group homes in Fremont County, specifically in Lander and Riverton, to temporarily house teenagers for minor offenses such as being under the influence or running away from home.

"I'm pursuing diversion," Varn said about using programs that address children without prosecuting them and creating criminal records that can limit their opportunity in the future.

"That's not to say they should not be held responsible for their actions."

Neighboring counties

In instances when youth commit felonies and other serious crimes, authorities can utilize juvenile detention facilities in neighboring Natrona or Sweetwater counties.

They also envision partnering with school districts in the county for "day-reporting" programs that continue educational components for youth who may be in trouble.

"I don't want to lose that educational piece that helps kids avoid crime," Varn told commissioners.

The proposal followed a temporary closure of the juvenile detention wing at the Fremont County jail in past months due to a massive influx of inmates resulting from the drug operation known as "Operation Angry Sun."

"During the drug case we had the juvenile section shut down," Varn said.

289 detained

He questioned the incarceration of juveniles in Fremont County, noting that last year the detention center housed 289 children. Of the total, "44 I can see why we held them," he said, adding that 30 of them could have been monitored using a global positioning system device.

"The biggest motivator for me is the standard of juveniles going to detention," the sheriff said about reasons authorities take youth to jail.

Their plan to remove the handling of juveniles in jail and convert the space into adult housing carries debate about the consequences and benefits of the move.

Adult transport costs

Varn told commissioners Hornecker's department spends upward of $360,000 to $400,000 annually to place adult inmates in other detention facilities due to a lack of space in Lander. The amount does not include costs of manpower, transportation and other related issues.

"We are spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000 to house adults out of county -- needlessly, in my estimation," Varn said.

"We're expending money. To the taxpayers, I think it's a shame we're spending this much money to transport adults," he said.

For the detention center, the conversion to an all-adult facility would ease issues involving the handling of juveniles.

"It lessens (sheriff's office) procedures. It makes the training out there much more consistent," Varn said.

Hornecker said the closure of the juvenile section would open up 25 beds for adult inmates.

"We have anomalies. There will be times a juvenile meets the need for detention and the roads will be closed," he said. "We can hold a juvenile overnight" and follow regulations that demand "sight and sound separation" from adults.

Alternatives to jail

Hornecker said a sheriffs and police chiefs association is "willing to fund us as a pilot program" for the day-reporting program. Additionally, employees within the juvenile justice program in his department could transition to other similar roles, he said.

The idea is to "start looking at alternatives to detention," the sheriff said. "I really truly see a future development of a plan and process where we don't need development of a juvenile detention center."

Many questions remain about the consequences of the shift.

"It appears to me that the detox component is going to be kind of critical," commission chairman Doug Thompson said, adding that taking drunk juveniles to group homes is "problematic."

Varn said group homes can take a youth with a blood-alcohol level of below .08, while a medical clearance is necessary for those higher than that level.

"We have policies and procedures in place that comply with the group home," he said.

Hornecker said putting an intoxicated juvenile in jail violates law.

"It puts the county at risk," he said. "We're not trained to take a juvenile and treat medically with that kind of housing."

Thompson warned about the kind of youths that will find their way to the day-reporting educational program. "Having been on the school board for 20 years ... you're going to end up with every problem kid the schools want to get rid of," said Thompson, who served on the Jeffrey City school board.

'Creating a criminal'

Varn said putting youth into an educational program is better than allowing them to stay at home and play video games or worse -- drinking and getting into other trouble.

"We're creating a criminal. While I like job security, it's not the kind of job security I'm comfortable with," he said. "I think that through a different process we can at least make them pay attention."

Concerns exist about the needs of Wind River Indian Reservation authorities in the matter.

"I see tribal government not really being represented in your flow chart like they should be," Thompson said.

"They are absolutely involved in this at all stages," Varn replied. "We've kept them fully informed. ... They have been very, very supportive of the changes we've made."

Thompson said more information and discussion are necessary to make a decision. "I would be uncomfortable today saying, yes, close the juvenile detention center," he said. "We've got to know what's going to happen out there."

Varn understood.

"Our intent here today is to plow deeply and plant seeds," he said.

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