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Kids behind bars

Apr 1, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Putting children in jail is an unsavory prospect. Sometimes, however, it is necessary. Fremont County has a juvenile detention component at the detention center in Lander that meets the unwelcome need when it arises.

Now however, the top law enforcement officials in county government wonder if our full-blown juvenile detention program in Fremont County is worth it. They may well be right.

The issue has little to do with the occasional need to apprehend and hold a juvenile. No policy pronouncement will change the reality of that requirement in civil society. Kids commit crimes sometimes, and those crimes and their perpetrators must be dealt with.

The question facing Fremont County is more concerned with the sensible distribution of resources. Sheriff Skip Hornecker and County Attorney Brian Varn think there might be a better way. The numbers -- both people and dollars -- bear them out.

Day after day, for years now, our county has spent big bucks to transport adult offenders to jails in other counties. We're a big state, so even the closest border county jails to Lander are more than 100 miles away. Transporting prisoners is time consuming and grows more expensive with each passing day with the accompanying increase in the price of gasoline. It also consumes staff time and accelerates the deterioration of county vehicles.

Once the prisoners are delivered, the neighboring counties charge handsomely for their jail space. Hornecker and Varn said the tab for out-of-county prisoner housing is about $400,000 a year.

Now, the county is facing a recession-battered budgeting process. Revenues have been down for a couple of years, and budgets, necessarily, have followed suit. The knife hasn't spared law enforcement. Pennies are groaning from being pinched so hard, but until the revenues return, it's going to take creativity if the county departments are to get some relief.

Hornecker and Varn may have an idea that fits the bill. Simply put, it would keep the adult inmates home and ship the minors to other jails. There are far fewer minors arrested and incarcerated than adults, yet it's the larger group -- the adults -- who are shipped out of county.

So, if the county must spend money to haul prisoners to other jails because our jail space is insufficient, and if there is a "pod" of jail space allocated specifically to juveniles here, then perhaps it does make sense that the money on out-of-county incarceration be spent on the smaller demographic -- namely, the minors.

The two elected officials also point out that their idea could result in fewer under-age jail inmates through the use of group homes and shelters to hold kids for minor offenses, simultaneously saving additional detention expense while also keeping the dangerous offenders separate from the others. That's good two-birds-with-one-stone thinking.

When it comes to incarceration, particularly when kids are involved, money can't be the only thing that talks. But it does have a loud voice, and it's hard not to hear it when dollars are so tight and the need for well-funded law enforcement so great.

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