Plan for St. James Youth Center leaves officials scrambling
VACHERIE — The plan to move the St. James Youth Center into a converted adult detention center in Assumption Parish has changed, leaving officials from an eight-parish commission scrambling to come up with their own solutions while a deadline approaches for the juvenile facility to shutter its doors forever this summer.
St. James Parish Director of Emergency Preparedness Eric Deroche said, meanwhile, he fears logistical problems would close the youth detention center before its scheduled June 30 shutdown.
“It’s going to be a struggle, if not impossible, to operate until June 30 at the rate we’re losing employees,” said Deroche, adding that one employee is out on maternity leave and four others have quit to find other jobs or have been asked to leave by the parish.
St. James Parish government officials have said they will close the detention center, located on the west bank of the Mississippi River adjacent to the Sunshine Bridge near Donaldsonville, because of new state regulations that will drive up the cost of operating the facility.
Ridgely Mitchell, St. James Parish assistant director of operations, told the St. James Parish Council on Jan. 16 the commission initially decided to support two options to keep the juvenile detention center open somewhere in the area. One option called for the commission to take control of the detention center, the other would allow Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack to house juvenile offenders from an eight-parish area in a converted adult detention center in Napoleonville.
But, with time running out, the commission is not able to assume financial responsibility for the detention center, Mitchell said.
“At this point in time, the commission cannot take over anything,” Mitchell said. “There is no money involved. We tried discussing it last meeting by looking for some funds in place but that didn’t materialize. ... At this point, the commission is not functioning, moneywise.”
The commission — made up of representatives from Ascension, Assumption, Iberville, Pointe Coupee, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist and West Baton Rouge parishes — elected during its December meeting to support Waguespack’s attempt at creating a juvenile facility.
St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said the commission “chose to put all their marbles in Sheriff Waguespack’s basket,” but with Waguespack’s plan hitting some snags, officials are worried about what will be done with youthful offenders in the eight-parish region.
Deroche said Waguespack had planned to use the adult detention center under construction in Assumption Parish as the new juvenile detention center for the surrounding parishes. However, the adult detention center being built isn’t configured to comply with new state standards that will go into effect July 1, he said.
For instance, the new facility has dormitory-style rooms. But juveniles are not allowed to be housed in such quarters, Deroche said.
Waguespack’s new plan calls for revising the parish’s current adult detention center to fit the needs of juvenile offenders, Deroche said.
Waguespack said he and officials from the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, which will begin licensing juvenile detention facilities this year, toured the facility Friday.
Waguespack said afterward during a phone interview that he was “very encouraged by the visit.”
Next, a policy and procedures manual for the new detention center must be drafted and then a state licensing team will inspect the site, he said. If there are deficiencies in the site, they will be corrected or waivers will be sought, Waguespack said.
The Assumption Parish Police Jury, the owner of the adult detention center where Waguespack plans to house juveniles, also must give its approval of the site, the sheriff said.
Waguespack said he is confident all this can be accomplished before the St. James Parish Youth Center shuts its doors June 30.
“Absolutely. I don’t see a problem with that,” Waguespack said.
Officials are unsure what will happen if the building cannot be configured to the new standards prior to the closure of the St. James Youth Center. Time is running out on the commission, which has struggled to achieve a quorum for most of its meetings and didn’t meet this month.
Deroche said the next commission meeting is scheduled for Feb. 15, but a special meeting could be called before that, depending on the response of Children and Family Services officials to their initial inspection of the Assumption Parish facility.
Parish officials now are working to come up with their own plans to house juvenile offenders in order to avoid housing them in a place where visitors and law enforcement authorities would have to drive more than two hours to reach.
“I’d hate to see them go as far as Lake Charles, but that’s a possibility,” St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin said during the Jan. 16 meeting.
Roussel said he and other parish officials are working on a “Plan C,” but declined to elaborate on it before Children and Family Services officials can review it.
Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said in a Jan. 17 phone interview that he and other parish officials are looking forward to seeing if the state agency will accept Waguespack’s plan, but acknowledged there is a time crunch.
“Will the Waguespack model, even if it flies, be ready?” Wiley said, also wondering if the plan would offer a long-term solution for housing juvenile offenders.
That’s why Wiley said he and other Ascension Parish officials met Jan. 14 to discuss how they could possibly house juvenile offenders in Ascension Parish for long-term periods, he said.
“We’re not doing the public justice if we don’t at least examine what we can do in Ascension Parish with the detention issue,”’ Wiley said.
Wiley said the parish could propose to build a youth detention center to lock up violent or chronic offenders and a youth shelter for juveniles who do not want to return to a dysfunctional home environment.
In the short term, Wiley said, the parish might be interested in renting one of the St. James Youth Center’s four pods to accommodate Ascension Parish juvenile offenders with “100 percent of the burden” falling on the Ascension Parish government.
Ascension Parish citizens will have to decide whether to fund either plan, Wiley said.