Editorial: Good news on jail expansion, but beware cutbacks for juveniles

A definitive staff report helped the Deschutes County Commission switch course Wednesday and do the right thing, deciding to move forward with a long-overdue adult jail expansion.

Questions remain, however, about the investment the county will continue to make in the well-being of troubled youth in the region.

After initially approving the adult jail expansion last summer, the county decided instead to use its under-utilized juvenile center for adults. It authorized $35,000 for a consultant to help decide what to do with juveniles.

But even after the resulting Chinn Planning report made clear the lack of cost-effective options for juveniles, the commission continued trying to make the idea work. Commissioner Tammy Baney told the editorial board Monday the juvenile operation needs to be right-sized so the county can invest in other programs. She said the county needs to focus on its own kids, not those from other counties. Commissioner Alan Unger said reimbursements from surrounding counties don’t cover the costs.

The idea of using the juvenile facility for adults was quashed Wednesday when staff reported it would cost close to $4 million to remodel another facility for juveniles and prepare the juvenile center for adults. And it wouldn’t solve long-term needs. The earlier $10.9 million adult jail expansion immediately became the obvious correct answer.

However, Baney wanted the adult jail expansion coupled with a commitment to reduce operations at the juvenile center, using only one segment — they call them “pods” — of the building instead of two. Commissioner Tony DeBone wanted the two issues separated, because he said he wasn’t ready for a commitment to using only one pod for juveniles.

The compromise was to ask staff to come back with a financial plan that addresses juvenile needs in the most cost-effective way possible.

It’s not at all clear from the Chinn report that one pod can serve the needs of the juvenile population, even if out-of-county youth are excluded. Although the numbers of incarcerated youth have been falling, the report cautions that those trends could easily change, and that peak needs are higher than averages.

We’re also not comfortable with the idea that Deschutes should turn its back on nearby counties, which will have to send juveniles to The Dalles if space can’t be found in Deschutes. It’s not even clear which kids should be thought of as Deschutes youths. For example, how about a Crook or Jefferson resident who commits a crime in Deschutes?

The commission needs to be sure that right-sizing its juvenile facility doesn’t short-change the county and the region in pursuit of modest savings.