KENNEWICK, Wash. — Three juveniles walk into a jail ....
Sounds like the start to an inappropriate joke, but the Tri-Cities' top law enforcers say offenders have been delivering the punch line for a few years after budget constraints forced officials to reduce the number of beds in the Benton-Franklin juvenile detention center.
Teens arrested on serious crimes or picked up for probation violations, such as skipping school and hanging with gang members, have made a game of mocking the juvenile justice system, some officials said.
Many offenders know that with just 35 beds, when one person comes into juvenile hall for a longer stay, another must leave.
So the seasoned offenders have waged bets and created lists of who they think will be bumped first, before their sentence is served.
But juvenile justice officials, prosecutors and county commissioners have found no humor in it, and they hope the jokes will end now that Benton and Franklin counties have committed money to open more bed space starting this week.
"It does not send the right message to kids when they know that they're actually on a revolving door at the juvenile justice," Benton County Commissioner Shon Small told the Herald. "And the message was that, as soon as you get there, they're so full that you're going to get out basically before the sentence would be carried out."
Small said it's been embarrassing to think the detention center could be compared to an amusement park -- kids must wait in line to get inside because only so many are allowed in at one time.
Troubles started in January 2010 after officials cut staff, forcing a reduction in the number of beds that could be filled in the bicounty facility because Franklin County was unable to come up with its full share of the money for the juvenile budget.
Benton commissioners said they didn't want to make the cuts, but they couldn't cover all the expenses unless Franklin County gave them sole ownership of the Kennewick facility on Canal Drive, then rented bed space.
More than two years later, the detention center's overcrowding became a daily problem, and officials this summer told commissioners on both sides of the river that something had to be done now.
Commissioners didn't need much persuading, with both counties giving the green light to hire three new full-time detention officers and to house at least 15 more juveniles starting this Thursday.
The bicounty agreement is that Benton County will cover about 68 percent of the juvenile budget, which would be about $4 million for 2013. Franklin County will contribute about 32 percent, or $1.83 million next year.
The split is determined based on each county's "at risk" population -- or the number of kids ages 10-17.
The total cost to cover the increased staffing at the detention center is $184,727.
"I'm glad that we're back supporting the program. I'm glad we're back supporting law enforcement," Benton County Commissioner Jim Beaver said. "Public safety is No. 1 on my (list), whether I'm just a homeowner or a mayor or chairman of the Benton County commissioners."
Franklin County is tapping into its 0.3 percent public safety sales tax that was approved by voters last year to pay for a new jail and gang suppression efforts in the county.
"Certainly the voter-approved three-tenths has given us the ability to fund what the board all believes are important public safety issues," said Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck.
Commissioners have committed to using some of the money for juvenile detention next year and likely will continue that in 2014, he said. Franklin County's juvenile budget for next year includes about $137,000 from the sales tax revenue to cover the increased budget costs. A portion of the sales tax revenue is earmarked to cover operation costs for the new Franklin County jail, but Peck explained that money can be diverted to juvenile during the two years the jail is being built.
"There is a fundamental premise that early intervention reduces long-term costs," he said. "If you believe that -- and I do -- then investments in programs like juvenile justice are particularly worthwhile and have lasting benefits."
Benton County also supports finding more room in juvenile detention, but its funding into next year might be in limbo with the county facing a $2.7 million shortfall. Commissioners have been meeting with elected officials to see where the county can be more efficient and possibly make staff cuts.
When asked if detention staffing could again be on the chopping block, Beaver told the Herald he does not consider it a temporary fix, and Small said he won't be cutting juvenile.
"Everyone knows that today's kids are tomorrow's future, and that we will have to be making a priority budget when it comes down to fulfilling this $2.7 million deficit," Small said. "It's an unfortunate circumstance, but there is going to be a very good opportunity for all the local governments and elected officials to work together to try to maintain services that residents expect."
"I want kids to become a positive contribution to society, not a negative one," he added. "And if we can house them in a corrections facility to give them a wake-up call to become a better benefit to the community, then it's served its purpose."
Rehabilitation is the goal
The juvenile justice system's mission is rehabilitation -- giving kids the tools needed to help them stay out of trouble by diverting jail sentences and by using probation and truancy services.
Detention is not the most important piece of the work they do, said Sharon Paradis, the juvenile justice center's administrator, but it's been "very, very difficult" with the constraints of the 35-bed capacity.
The housing limitations quickly became a problem for Tri-City law enforcement agencies who worked together conducting sweeps to round up gang-involved fugitives on warrants or new crimes. Several juveniles have been arrested during those efforts.
"It is very frustrating to a police officer when they're told they can't book (a juvenile) because there's no room, or somebody's released early and then commits a crime," said Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg. "We shouldn't have another victim because there's no room to hold a person in detention."
The detention center has four pods that each have 10 rooms split between two floors. Each room can house two kids, though most are singles right now, said Eric Lipp, detention manager. If they had enough detention staff, the facility could hold 80 kids.
If needed, an old section of the detention center now used for storage and offices could be remodeled to house another 40 offenders.
The detention center has seen 1,364 kids come through its door in the past 12 months. That number reflects total bookings, with some juveniles coming in several times.
Boys typically make up about 85 percent of the offenders in detention, but the facility tries to keep one pod separate for girls and another is designated for intensive management to hold kids with behavioral issues while in detention, he said.
The average length of stay in detention is five to seven days, Paradis said, but the maximum sentence is one month. If a judge hands down more time, the teen will serve it in the custody of the state's Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration in a facility elsewhere in the state.
The majority of kids arrested aren't held in detention while awaiting trial, unless they're accused of a serious crime, judges and prosecutors said.
About 35 percent of kids on any given day are serving time for probation violations.
"The biggest problem we experience in terms of detention is when the court orders a youth to a period of time in detention and we can't fulfill that," Paradis said. "Kids are bright ... They're taking bets on if they're going to serve time."
In some cases, teens being released early are required to make an appointment to come back and complete their time -- sometimes serving a 10-day sentence, for example, two days at a time over several weeks.
"If that consequence is metered out over an extended period of time, kids do not connect that consequence," she said. Prosecutors also worry that some juveniles just aren't coming back to do their time. And charging them with escape for failing to report wouldn't go far if they can't do their time on the original crime.
Since 2010, 483 youth were released early because of overcrowding, according to information presented recently to Benton County commissioners.
A look at numbers from August 2011-12 showed 131 youth got out of detention early. Of those, 71 got their time for probation violations erased when they were released, while 45 were ordered to return when space was available to complete their probation violation sentences.
"We need the ability to say, 'Now.' Not, 'Let's see, we've got your reservation six weeks from now," said Superior Court Judge Robert Swisher. The immediacy and the severity of the sanctions are lost with a delay, he said.
Swisher went with Paradis before the commissioners to contend that detention issues have reached a crisis point and the wrong message is going out not only to juveniles, but to the community.
"It affects the ability of counselors or probation officers to jerk somebody's chain up short when they're acting out," Swisher said. "And it affects law enforcement the same way out on the street, if they found somebody that they know is on probation and they know they're out after curfew hours and shouldn't be."
The budget cuts from about three years ago forced reductions in probation counselors, security and clerical or support staff. That led to shorter probation time for kids, as well as less time to work with counselors and to get into programs such as Selective Aggressive Probation and Functional Family Therapy.
"The juvenile justice system is about finding a balance between accountability and rehabilitation -- or habilitation for some kids," Paradis said. "You can't just provide some kind of punishment without helping that kid find out how not to do it again. ... Kids don't intuitively know what to do and how to do it."
Being able to add staff to increase the bed capacity to 50-60 kids, depending on gender and offense, means that the threat of detention for violations once again will carry some weight.
"I think we were getting into a position where we were starting to lose the fight and we were worried about the system breaking down," said Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller. "When you don't have the detention component and it becomes a kind of laughing stock among the juveniles, that also affects probation and treatment programs."
'State of chaos'
The breaking point was in August, September and October of this year, when juvenile staff often were making the daily decision of who to release early.
Probation staff, prosecutors and judges worked together to decide who to release based on a variety of factors, including the current offense, criminal history, behavior while in detention and risk to reoffend.
"Detention was in a state of chaos -- trying to get kids in the front door while trying to get the OK to release kids," Paradis said. "There were a number of times where we got to a point in back where we had to choose a high-risk youth who presented the least risk to the community."
Prosecutors were given veto power but it was not absolute, so they were forced to pick their battles. That was compounded with the fact prosecutors had to adjust the sentencing grid in the past three years so juveniles would receive shorter detention terms to accommodate the capacity issues.
Miller said his office has a general policy to automatically veto someone who is on Selective Aggressive Probation, who has gang affiliations or is in detention for a gang-related crime. However, the prosecutors sometimes lost the fight because bringing in one juvenile meant another had to come out.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant said it sometimes became difficult to distinguish between the kid ranked seventh and the one ranked first.
"What eventually we saw happening is that we were making a decision, are we releasing the arson suspect or the person alleged to have made the sexual assault? How do you say one is better than the other? It's a terrible decision," he said. "Frankly, our position is hold them all. But the reality is that wasn't possible."
Even a teen arrested for repeat vehicle prowling is difficult to release early, Sant said. It may not be a serious crime, but it is a community safety issue.
"I'm always concerned with the issue of kids having to be released early," said Sant, who was a juvenile deputy prosecutor in 2006. "They are juveniles, but some of our juveniles are out there committing our most serious crimes."
If there wasn't agreement on enough of the kids, a court hearing would be held for judges or court commissioners to decide who would be released, Paradis said. Kids who got out early generally had five or six days left to serve, with the majority leaving just one or two days early.
Prosecutors said they don't think locking kids up and throwing away the key is the only answer. They say research has shown that many first-time juvenile offenders are scared to death and never will be seen again in the justice system.
But they must balance that with accountability, making sure the alternatives don't compromise community safety or make crime victims feel slighted because the offender didn't serve the full sentence or pay restitution.
"I think adding the beds is going to have a huge impact from what we have right now," Sant said. "Adding 15 beds is almost increasing that by a third. It will definitely make a difference."