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Closing Mecklenburg's juvenile detention center could put teenagers hours away from family

Sarah Delia
A juvenile works on an art project at Jail North.

Mecklenburg County’s Juvenile Detention Center would close this December under the county manager’s budget recommendation. That would mean many teenagers would go to facilities as far as three or four hours away from their families and lawyers.

County Budget Director Adrian Cox told commissioners Thursday that to save money and increase staffing at the main jail uptown, the county should shut down its juvenile detention center.

“The manager’s recommended budget supports a strategy proposed by the sheriff’s office to end a contract supporting the state’s responsibility to house juvenile inmates at an extra cost to the county at our Jail North,” Cox said.

County Manager Dena Diorio noted that the county expected to lose $16.7 million because the U.S. Marshall transferred so many federal detainees. That was after the state told the sheriff’s office it needed to transfer inmates because staffing shortages were posing “an imminent threat” to the safety of inmates and staff.

Staffing shortages at the jail in uptown Charlotte, exacerbated by COVID-19, have prompted North Carolina health officials to ask the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office to reduce its inmate population. The state says current conditions “jeopardize the safe custody, safety health or welfare” of inmates and jail staff.

“The revenue reduction has been mitigated through a series of operating budget reductions, including closure of the juvenile detention facility effective December 1, 2022, freezing 90 vacant positions, and reducing other ancillary operating costs.”

The Juvenile Detention Center located in north Charlotte can house up 72 teenagers. The state contracted with the county three years ago anticipating it would have to house many more under the Raise the Age law since 16- and 17- year olds would no longer be going to adult facilities.

William Lassiter, who oversees Juvenile Justice for the Department of Public Safety, said he heard about the plan Thursday, when Sheriff Garry McFadden called him.

“He said he had just heard the proposal was in the budget and that he wanted to give us a heads up that it was in there and that he was going to go in and try to figure out what the proposal was from the county commissioners also.”

A statement from the sheriff’s office said it made the “fiscally responsible decision” to suggest closing the juvenile detention center and since it is not a state-mandated service for the county, it was considered for reduction.

In December, the sheriff’s office said it temporarily transferred 23 juveniles from other counties so staff could help at jail central. Lassiter says the jail began accepting juveniles from other counties about 6 weeks ago. It currently houses 56 juveniles. Half of them, Lassiter says, are from Mecklenburg County and half from neighboring counties.

“Many of these kids would have to go hours away from their families, homes, to be housed — and away from court which they have to go back to routinely for hearings,” said Lassiter. “It adds a lot of transportation costs, it adds a lot of frustration from families, and a lot of heartbreak from the juveniles themselves who won’t be able to see their parents. So this would be really detrimental to our system.”

The state operates seven juvenile detention centers and contracts with four counties to run centers. The closest facility to Charlotte is in Concord. But Lassiter said it’s unlikely it would be able to accommodate a juvenile picked up in Mecklenburg County.

“The reality is, as of today, that facility is completely full and pretty much statewide all our beds are full, so to lose 72 beds out of capacity in the next six months will be extremely difficult.”

Lassiter says the state is planning on opening three more juvenile detention facilities in August of 2023. The closest one would be in Richmond County about 1.5 hours east of Charlotte.

He’s got some questions about the county manager’s proposal, including whether the 100 staff members at the juvenile detention center would end up taking jobs at the main jail.

“The staff that we recruit in our system, they have a heart for kids. That’s why they want to work in juvenile justice. They have a passion for trying to change these kids’ lives. I think what you’ll see is a lot of that staff may not be interested in working in the adult jail down the street.”

County commissioners are scheduled to approve a budget on June 22. Lassiter says he wants to sit down with them and negotiate how to keep the detention center open because "it’s the right thing for kids."

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.