Critics question sending youths far away from services

By Marcy Stamper

The Okanogan County commissioners have begun an analysis of the county’s options for juvenile detention, sparking concern from county employees and the public over the prospect of sending juveniles to a facility near Spokane, some three hours away.

Those who oversee Okanogan County’s current juvenile-detention facility, which was built in 1974 with room for 10 offenders (since expanded with bunk beds), say the facility does not meet their needs for space, private meeting areas, or safety for residents and staff.

Proposals to remedy these conditions range from building a new justice complex in Okanogan to housing juveniles at Martin Hall, a maximum-security facility on the Eastern State Hospital campus in Medical Lake, near Spokane.

Various boards of county commissioners have looked at this issue before, according to Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Jack Burchard, now retired, who toured Martin Hall in 2003.

In a report on the visit, Burchard said Martin Hall was “a good, modern facility.” Nevertheless, the visit raised many questions. “Is it wise to send our children 136 miles away?” asked Burchard, who said the trip took almost three hours in good weather.

Three years ago, the Okanogan County commissioners proposed a $19.5-million justice complex to replace the county’s existing juvenile-detention facility and to create additional meeting space in the adjacent courthouse for privacy and security.

In February 2013, all three commissioners — Sheilah Kennedy and Ray Campbell had just been sworn in — praised the proposed justice complex. In a letter to state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette (12th District, R-Wenatchee), they described it as “an innovative capital project that not only creates a modern and more efficient juvenile detention center, but also provides additional needed courtrooms and areas for court support.”

“We, the Board of Okanogan County Commissioners, wholeheartedly and unanimously support every effort to advance this project,” they wrote.

Parlette was similarly impressed by the proposal. “I worked so hard to get funding along with Dennis Rabidou [administrator of Okanogan County’s Juvenile and Family Services], but I learned that the Legislature doesn’t fund these types of projects,” said Parlette this week.

In an opinion piece published last week in the Omak Chronicle, the three commissioners said discussions about the juvenile detention facility “have never been as thorough as they should have been and always left a final decision somewhat in doubt … It is time to start, and complete, a thorough analysis.”

Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Christopher Culp also recalls previous discussions. “To my recollection the matter of Martin Hall and detention has been discussed by this and previous BOCC [boards of county commissioners] at least three, maybe four, times in the last several years. At least twice, and maybe three times, a decision was made NOT to transport to Martin Hall. So my question is this: What is different now in 2016 that warrants this matter again being discussed?” Culp wrote in January.

Okanogan County’s juvenile court deputy prosecutor, Felecia Chandler, is also troubled by the idea of switching to Medical Lake. “Even if there were a fiscal benefit to contracting with Martin Hall, I fear the community as a whole will pay in other respects,” she wrote to the commissioners last month. She pointed to state laws that require unadjudicated youth to remain in their communities whenever possible and said the range of services provided locally reduces the likelihood of recidivism.

Martin Hall run by consortium

Using Martin Hall as a juvenile-detention facility started in 1995, when nine Eastern Washington counties — some too small to have their own facility — banded together to create a regional facility, according to Scott Hutsell, a Lincoln County commissioner and chair of the Martin Hall consortium board.

The counties renovated Martin Hall through a $6-million bond that expires this year, said Hutsell. Martin Hall has 42 cells, some with multiple beds to accommodate 63 youths. The Okanogan County commissioners toured Martin Hall in early 2015, said Hutsell.

The consortium exists through a special 50-year agreement and no member can withdraw without a unanimous vote, said Hutsell. Each member is obligated to pay for a certain number of beds at $155 per night each month, whether they use them or not. Stevens County pays for seven beds a month, while Lincoln County pays for only half a bed, said Hutsell. If a county needs additional beds, it is charged the same nightly rate.

Outside users, who are not members of the consortium, pay $200 per night. These users include the Yakama Nation and Coeur d’Alene and Spokane tribes, said Hutsell.

If Okanogan County were to switch to Martin Hall, the county could become an outside user at $200 per night, or the consortium members could potentially vote to add another member, said Hutsell.

The bed rate has been $155 for the past three years, but that fee can fluctuate, depending on the consortium’s ability to meet its minimum cash reserve, said Hutsell. Several years ago the fee was $175 per night.

Members of the consortium are Adams, Asotin, Douglas, Ferry, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens and Whitman counties.

Since 1999, Martin Hall has been operated for the consortium by Community, Counseling, and Correctional Services (CCCS), a nonprofit corporation based in Butte, Montana. CCCS also operates detention facilities and transition programs in Montana and North Dakota.

The average daily population at Martin Hall in 2015 was 25 youths, according to Robert Palmquist, the Martin Hall administrator with CCCS. The age range is 10 through 17, with an average age of 15. The average stay was 15 days.

The bed rate includes transportation to and from Martin Hall, as many times as necessary, said Hutsell. CCCS provides all transport in a van and a fleet of four police vehicles outfitted with cages. While in transit, juveniles must be restrained, so they are handcuffed and in belly chains and leg irons, said Palmquist.

“It becomes an economy of scale,” said Hutsell, noting that smaller counties can have trouble supporting the staff for their own detention facilities. It might be attractive to the consortium counties to add other members, potentially reducing the bed rates for everyone, he said. “Having a first-class facility with the lowest rate possible — that’s our goal,” he said.

Some contend that optimizing the economics is behind the push to attract new users.

“Every few years members of the consortium that operates Martin Hall … try to sell their program to the Okanogan County Commissioners as a cost saving proposal,” wrote Burchard to his former colleagues this January. “In 2003 our Commissioners initially favored this proposal. Thorough study led them to conclude that the use of Martin Hall would cost much more and be bad for our kids and their families.”

Hutsell said family visitation of youths housed at Martin Hall is relatively low. “It’s sad — not a lot of parents come to visit,” he said. He said he didn’t know the reason, but in his eight years as chair of the consortium board, the issue of distance had never come up.

Visiting hours at Martin Hall are two hours a day on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, according to Palmquist.

Some community members believe the distance would interfere with family cohesion. “In a time when we need to bring more services to our area we are taking them away … This is a hard time for youth and their families and travel and distance makes it even harder,” wrote a resident of Oroville.

Burchard questioned the wisdom of removing youths from family support, which can be a decisive element in rehabilitation, he said. If housed at Martin Hall, youths would also be far away from their lawyers, probation officers and counselors, he said.

The commissioners have received half-a-dozen letters on the subject thus far, none in favor of switching to Martin Hall. The letters are posted on the Planning Department website.

“I am concerned that by transferring our county’s children to out of county locations we will further encourage disengagement from the community and schools and increase the likelihood of school dropouts and increase the risk of later court involvement,” wrote a resident of Omak.

“Think about what it might be like for a child sentenced for a minor crime to be shipped away and housed with other children with possibly more serious crimes … away from their family and community supports,” she wrote.

Comment on options

The county commissioners have formally asked the public, agencies and private organizations to help identify issues to evaluate in an analysis of juvenile-detention options.

Meeting schedules, agendas, public comments, county correspondence and related documents are available online at www.okanogancounty.org/planning.

Comments should be directed to Planning Director Perry Huston at phuston@co.okanogan.wa.us or (509) 422-7218, or Juvenile Administrator Dennis Rabidou at drabidou@co.okanogan.wa.us or (509) 422-7264.

The commissioners will meet with Okanogan County Superior Court officials on Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 8:15 a.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan. They will begin their preliminary review of comments and set a meeting schedule. Anyone who is unable to access materials online or who wants to be placed on a notification list can contact Lauren Davidson in the Planning Department at (509) 422-7160 or ldavidson@co.okanogan.wa.us.