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The articles from Inside Politics With Steve Harrison appear first in his weekly newsletter, which takes a deeper look at local politics, including the latest news on the Charlotte City Council, what's happening with Mecklenburg County's Board of Commissioners, the North Carolina General Assembly and much more.

Political turf war keeps Mecklenburg juvenile jail closed. But which side is playing politics?

Annie Houston and her family walking
Lisa Worf
/
WFAE
Annie Houston and her family went to the Mecklenburg juvenile detention center in October 2022 to visit her grandson. He was sent to a state facility 90 minutes away in Morganton when the juvenile jail closed.

A version of this news analysis originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

Two years ago, Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden said he would stop operating a juvenile detention center in north Charlotte, the only one in the county. He was having trouble staffing his main jail uptown, and it was hard for him to find enough people to operate both.

The minors were sent farther afield — mostly to an older facility in Cabarrus County that was once named for Stonewall Jackson.

McFadden still uses the kitchen at the old juvenile detention center to make meals for inmates at the main jail uptown. He also uses some rooms for training.

But other than that, the building is empty.

Taxpayers have spent nearly $73 million to build, maintain and renovate the building near Interstate 77 and Sunset Road since it opened 30 years ago.

“It seems like an awful waste of a resource that’s sitting vacant,” said William Lassiter, the deputy secretary at the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

There is now a significant push to reopen the facility, amidst a rising number of crimes such as shootings and car thefts being committed by juveniles.

Charlotte Police Chief Johnny Jennings wants that.

Elizabeth Trosch, the former chief district court judge, said having a juvenile facility in Mecklenburg “certainly benefits our kids and it benefits our community.”

Lassiter is also pushing to reopen the center. He’s offered to buy or lease the building from the county.

But so far Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio and McFadden have declined all offers.

McFadden said the state is not being reasonable. He said he’s willing to reopen the detention center if he can hire state staff from the juvenile detention center in Cabarrus County.

“There is a lot of politics in this,” he said before talking about himself in the third person. He suggested the state doesn’t want to work with him because of his personality.

“This is still Sheriff McFadden who is loud, who is fearless. (Is the state) going to give in to him? Absolutely not.”

The standoff comes as McFadden has criticized the state for what he says are unfair inspections of the main jail uptown. His jail has not passed a number of recent inspections.

Until recently, about 55 teenagers were typically confined at a juvenile detention center in north Charlotte. Around 40 of them were from Mecklenburg County. They were close to family, their lawyers and courts for hearings. Now, there are zero.

A good program

When McFadden ran the juvenile detention center from 2020 to 2022, there is near universal agreement that the children there were treated well.

“It was definitely a best practices model,” Trosch said. “Kids were having their education delivered by their education authority, CMS. There was community-based programming in the detention facility. They had better access to their family and their natural support and their lawyers.”

Lassiter said people have suggested the state build a new juvenile facility in Mecklenburg County that it runs instead of the sheriff.

“But that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you have a facility that’s sitting empty,” he said. “Why spend $100 million on a new facility when we have one already?”

Lassiter said he’s proposed leasing the empty detention center from the county. He said McFadden could still use the kitchen, and he could even sell meals to the state.

“That could be a money-maker for them,” he said. He said the sheriff could use the revenue from a lease to increase the pay of detention officers in the main jail.

McFadden isn't interested. He said he might one day need the extra space for his own inmates.

“We won’t lease it out to them,” he said.

His plan is for him to hire the state’s staff at the Cabarrus detention center and bring them to Mecklenburg. He said they would make more money and their rank would be protected.

“Imagine (the state being able to close) Stonewall Jackson and never have to deal with it again,” he said.

Lassiter said in a statement that the state has not been presented with that idea.

Commissioners defer to sheriff

The empty Mecklenburg juvenile detention center isn’t owned by the sheriff’s office, however. It’s owned by Mecklenburg County.

So far, county manager Dena Diorio has looked to McFadden for guidance about the facility.

And Mecklenburg Commissioners — who are ultimately in charge — have generally backed Diorio.

Said McFadden: “I tell the county commissioners: listen to your sheriff, not the state.”

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.