County sets plan for juvenile detention

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Josh Sipes

HANCOCK COUNTY – The county has started its first year in several without a guaranteed place to detain children accused of crimes.

Officials have a plan to adapt to the unforeseen circumstance, but acknowledge it’s not as stable or extensive as the one they’ve had in the past. It comes at a time when juvenile justice is demanding more resources, and is prompting conversations about potential long-term solutions as well.

Hancock County terminated its contract late last year for services from the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center, managed and operated by the Muncie-based Youth Opportunity Center. The center told the county earlier in the year that it wouldn’t be able to fulfill its agreement with the county for 2023 due to an inability to achieve adequate staffing.

That contract included about 2,000 bed spots per year and transportation for juveniles. Josh Sipes, Hancock County chief probation officer, told the Hancock County Council earlier this month that the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center has now limited its total beds to about 18 to 20 – 10 to 12 of which for Delaware County and the remaining for counties that have formerly used the facility. Inmates are limited to male only and the center will no longer provide transportation, a responsibility that will now fall on law enforcement agencies.

Sipes said he has reached out to juvenile detention facilities in Hamilton and Johnson counties, neither of which were interested in agreements. He added he has also reached out to centers in Howard, Allen and Bartholomew counties.

“These places, as you can see, continue to get farther and farther from Hancock County,” he said. “All are willing to take our kids on an availability basis, which means they can all say no.”

Hancock County budgeted about $225,000 for juvenile detention in 2023, and Sipes said going rates at facilities are about $160 a night. He estimates Hancock County has sent about 100 juveniles annually to the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in recent years.

Sipes said Hancock County continues to see juveniles directly filed to an adult court – often referred to as “direct file youth” – and whom he described as 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes like robbery and rape.

“Those kids are very hard to place,” he said.

He added he’s been fielding a lot of questions about why juvenile detention wasn’t part of the plans for the county’s new jail that opened last year east of Greenfield.

“Obviously we didn’t need it,” he said. “We didn’t have direct file youth – we had one in five years. And we certainly didn’t need a detention facility, because we were paying $200,000 a year to use one in Muncie. You cannot build, or own, or operate a detention facility for $200,000. That wouldn’t even cover our salary costs. So we had a great partnership, and this has been a bit of a shock, but we do have a plan in place.”

Sipes said he’s worked with county judges and his staff to direct what kinds of charges will remain automatic detentions for juveniles – anything heinous or aggravated, if a child is in harm, if they’re using drugs, fleeing from police in a vehicle, and the like.

“If they hurt somebody, we’re still going to look for detention,” Sipes said. “But the fact does remain that there will probably be a time that we get told no.”

Sipes said Hancock County Community Corrections is willing to help, adding the county may need to look at more home detention for juveniles.

The county’s old jail in downtown Greenfield has potential, but not right away.

“Sure, it’s a possibility, but you don’t put kids in cells,” Sipes said, adding the facility would need to be renovated and properly staffed, which would require a great deal of time and money.

Sipes, who has been a probation officer for 23 years, said juvenile crime is far different now than it was in the past.

“The days of misdemeanor marijuana seem to be gone,” he said. “We’re looking at fentanyl use, heroin use, meth use, substantial and significant mental health issues, broken families, DCS (department of child services) failure placements – things like that – where kids cannot return home, and so that’s going to be one of our biggest issues.”

Ages of children charged with crimes in Hancock County typically span between 12 and 17, Sipes said, but can be younger.

“I’m fielding calls on 9-year-olds routinely at this point,” he said.

Keely Butrum, a Hancock County Council member, wonders if a regional concept makes sense when it comes to juvenile detention.

“At what point does it make sense to work together, particularly if the going rate a night is $150?” she said at the council meeting. “I’d love to see that discussion.”

Sipes said it does make sense, especially when considering nearby Henry and Wayne counties are similar in size and nature to Hancock County and have also relied on the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in the past.

“I think everybody’s sort of in the same boat as we are,” he said. “We’re going to have to change kind of our nature of detention, which is not always a bad thing. We need to update, take a look at what we’re doing.”

Chuck McMichael, deputy chief of the Greenfield Police Department, told the Daily Reporter that the department hasn’t had any juveniles it’s had to transport yet this year. He added there have been times throughout Hancock County’s agreement with the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center that GPD officers have transported juveniles to Muncie, and that it was actually quicker to do so.

“Everyone’s been short-staffed the last handful of years,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s just one of those necessary evils, but it’s not the end of the world.”