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Detention center threatened by overcrowding
June 17, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

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Scotts Bluff County will have to come up with an immediate solution for overcrowding in the adult section of its detention center.

As of last week, the detention center was between 30 and 50 adults above the maximum capacity of 176 beds. There were only five inmates in the juvenile section designed to hold about 30, so the county board decided to move its small juvenile population to other facilities on a temporary basis, then move the female adult population into the space vacated by the juveniles.

Unfortunately, the nearest juvenile detention facility in Nebraska is in Lincoln. That makes it costly for the county to return detainees to Gering for court hearings. It’s also problematic for their attorneys who need to meet with their clients.

The county detention center has the space to handle its juvenile population. The problem is overcrowding on the adult side. Not only is the adult detention facility full, it also has about 30 to 40 other adults housed in Lexington.

As a result, the county board met in special session on June 14, Tuesday, to gather input on how to alleviate the problem. When commissioners met with representatives from Jail Standards, they learned the overcrowding problem needed to be solved immediately.

“We don’t have any control over who comes into our facility on the adult side,” said Commissioner Ken Meyer. “I wish we did because the center that was supposed to last 25 years was full in less than 10. We have a severe problem that needs a solution.”

Interim Corrections Director Patricia Miller told commissioners they have to meet Jail Standards maximum number of 176 adult inmates.

“That’s not the number we can hold because of different classifications of inmates,” Miller said. “We only have so many housing units to do that. Even with all the detainees you’re housing in other facilities, it’s not helping the problem.”

Miller added that shipping the juveniles to other facilities is just a temporary fix. The community needs to come together to hammer out a long-term solution.

County Judge James Worden also spoke to the board and said the state’s juvenile justice system is fluid as the Legislature changes the rules all the time. So do sentencing guidelines for adult offenders.

“Those are some of the issues you need to consider before looking at new construction,” Worden told the commissioners. “Still, it’s important for us to have a safe place to house juveniles in the short term when emergencies occur.”

Commission Chairman Masterton threw out the idea of adding another pod onto the adult side of the facility, which was planned for when it was built. However, the cost of a jail pod is now in the $8-million-dollar range, plus another $750,000 to make it lock secure.

Another problem that arose when the juvenile population was moved from the facility was in the area of education. George Schlothauer, Director of Alternative Education with Educational Service Unit 13, said the ESU had worked with the county for the past 20-plus years to provide education for its detained juveniles.

“We currently have three teachers assigned to the juvenile detention center plus an educational liaison that works with the school districts where the students come from,” Schlothauer said. “We also provide year-round counseling services.”

He said the teachers need to know if they’ll still be teaching at the juvenile center when their contracts come up for renewal.
Their reimbursement comes from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and is contingent on having juveniles in the detention center.

Crystal Newton, Supervisor of the Juvenile Probation Division of District 12 Probation, said a local juvenile detention center is needed because of the need for attorneys to meet with their clients. Also, the county pays for housing and transportation costs whether it’s at a local facility or one in another area.

After more than an hour of public input, commissioners approved a temporary solution. Wyoming has an adult detention facility in Torrington, just 30 miles away.

Wyoming state statute doesn’t allow for acceptance of out-of-state juvenile detainees, but adults are another matter.

The county board asked officials to contact Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson to contact Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael to see if the Torrington facility could take some of Scotts Bluff’s adult detainees.

In the longer term, law enforcement and court officials plan to put together a community wide task force to address the overcrowding problem at the county detention facility.
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