The State of North Carolina is expected to raise the age at which people can be tried as adults from 16 to 18, and Guilford County is looking to cash in on that change.
North Carolina and New York are the only two states that still treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for the purposes of criminal prosecution.
Currently, youth in that age range are held in jail or prison rather than in juvenile detention centers. However, the law in North Carolina is expected to change soon and that could be a very profitable thing for Guilford County since the county is uniquely situated to handle an increase in juvenile delinquents. Guilford County has one of the newest, most modern juvenile detention facilities with a lot of room, and the county is looking to add even more space.
Currently, the Guilford County Juvenile Detention Center at 15 Lockheed Ct. near Piedmont Triad International Airport has room to hold juveniles from many other counties and it already does so consistently.
Now county officials are considering roughly doubling the size of that facility to house more out-of-county juvenile detainees in an effort to make a profit by meeting the demand for space once the state raises the legal age of juveniles. The expansion plans would be conditional on the state changing the law, but that change is something now considered to be a near certainty.
Guilford County’s detention center already holds youths from counties across North Carolina and it gets money from the state as well as from the juveniles’ county of origin.
In the fiscal 2015-2016, the Guilford County Court Alternatives Department, which oversees the detention center, had revenue of just under $2.7 million from housing juveniles with associated expenses of roughly $2.4 million.
Court Alternatives Director Doug Logan said he’s confident the state is going to change the law, and he added that it makes sense for the county to become a large holding site for those under 18 who are in trouble with the law.
“I’ve been here 28 years and this is the first year I think it’s going to happen,” Logan said of the state changing the adult age from 16 to 18.
Like Logan, Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said the change is expected.
“I think that freight train is coming down the tracks,” Barnes said.
At a Guilford County Board of Commissioners retreat held last week, county officials discussed increasing revenue by taking advantage of the county’s central location, its extra detention facility space and the potential for expansion.
Currently, the state pays Guilford County $122 a day to keep juveniles from other counties and Guilford County gets another $122 from the local government that sent the juvenile here for safekeeping.
So each delinquent from outside Guilford County is bringing in $244 in revenue while only costing the county an estimated $177 a day. In looking at the potential profitability of adding space to house additional delinquents, one thing that would have to be factored in is how much county money would be spent on building the new structure itself.
The current center at Lockheed Court has 44 beds and Logan said that the bed space in the center could be expanded to more than double that.
“We could add 48 more beds,” he said
Logan also said economies of scale could increase profits if the county expands and adds beds because it would increase revenue while the cost per day of keeping a juvenile would decrease.
Expanding the facility could cost $4 million. However, if the county agrees to use the expansion to house juveniles from other areas, it’s very likely the state will pay a good part of that cost. Logan said the state paid half the cost of constructing the current facility that opened in 1998.
He also said the current detention is a very nice one.
“We’re the largest facility; we’re the highest-tech facility,” Logan said.
According to Logan, it would make financial sense for North Carolina to pay some of the cost for an expansion of the Guilford County facility.
“Us keeping the juveniles assists the state so they don’t have to have another facility that they have to build somewhere else,” Logan said.
A change in the law would mean a dramatic increase in the need for juvenile detention beds – something that’s already in short supply across the state. County Commissioner Ray Trapp has worked for several years at the state level to get the age of adulthood raised, and he said that doing so will mean a big jump in the need for juvenile detention center space.
“A lot of counties are closing down their juvenile facilities, like Forsyth and Mecklenburg,” Trapp said, pointing out that even the state’s most populous county has to export its delinquents. “So if we can get out ahead of the curve it will pay for itself.”
Barnes said that, currently, 16- and 17-years-olds are held in the county’s two jails, and he said they are largely subject to the same treatment as everyone else in the jail – though he added that jail rape reduction legislation does call for some special supervision of those young inmates.
Juvenile detention space is harder to come by in the state than jail space is, and there are all sorts of additional concerns when it comes to holding juveniles as opposed to ordinary jail inmates. To take just one example, state law requires juveniles be provided more calories each day than adult inmates in jail.
The potential expansion of the current juvenile detention center into a larger for-hire facility was the subject of discussion at last week’s commissioners retreat. Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing said the county was pulling in good money each year from holding out-of-county inmates.
“We generate quite a bit of revenue now,” Lawing said. “It used to be it was a break-even operation.”
“Up until a few years ago, Guilford County had to put more money in to cover the operating costs,” he said.
If the state law changes as expected, it would mean that Guilford County’s 16- and 17-year-olds in the two jails would have to be moved to the detention facility and Lawing told the commissioners that they will have a decision to make.
“Do you want to expand the facility and continue to house juveniles from other counties or stop housing juveniles from other counties and just house those from Guilford County?” Lawing asked.
He said that if the county did not add space to the center, that revenue would go away.
Lawing said the first step would be a study to assess the cost of expansion, the demand for space and the desired size of any expansion. Right now adding 32 beds seems to be the plan of choice.
Currently, there are about 38 inmates in the 44-bed facility and most of those held are from outside the county. Logan said that was true nearly all the time.
“Generally, we’re operating with more of the out-of-county juveniles,” Logan said.
County Commissioner Hank Henning said he wants more information on the plan.
“I’d just like to see the full projections,” Henning said. “If we’re going to invest $4 million in a facility, I just want to see the numbers.”