Smaller center for juveniles draws support

Sunday, January 5, 2003

A circuit judge, Cape Girardeau County's chief juvenile officer and county commissioners -- who have argued for two years over whether to construct a new juvenile detention center and how big it should be -- agree that a $4.3 million, 38-bed building is out of the question.

Officials say the county can't afford it and there's no need for such a large facility, which was on the drawing board two years ago before the county commission put a halt to the project.

There's also general agreement by all the parties involved that they should sit down in an effort to resolve the lingering debate. But so far no one has called such a meeting.

Those involved in the dispute say they hope a Chicago consultant hired by the county commission will bring everybody to the table when she makes her final report, possibly in about a month.

Circuit Judge John Grimm said he hopes consultant Bobbie Huskey can help bring an end to the debate before Grimm leaves office in February.

"In hindsight, we should have hired the consultant two years ago, and we probably wouldn't have had these problems," he said.

Building something new

Grimm and Randy Rhodes, the chief juvenile officer, have pushed for construction of a new detention center, insisting the current 28-year-old, 10-bed facility in Cape Girardeau is too small and antiquated for today's juvenile department needs.

But a divided Cape Girardeau County Commission, which last year put the brakes on what it saw as a "Cadillac" project, still can't agree on whether to build a new center or make do with the existing structure at 325 Merriwether St., which underwent renovations in 2001 and 2002.

Gerald Jones, presiding commissioner, said he wanted to build a 20-bed, $2.8 million detention center two years ago. But Jones said Rhodes wanted a 38-bed facility.

Rhodes, however, said juvenile officials were never committed to only one building size. He said the 38-bed facility was proposed as a regional facility that would have housed juvenile offenders from surrounding judicial circuits as well as those in the 32nd Judicial Circuit of Cape Girardeau, Bollinger and Perry counties.

Stoddard County opened a new regional detention center last year in Bloomfield, Mo. Rhodes said another large detention center isn't needed.

"We want a facility that will meet our needs," Rhodes said.

Jones said he's tired of talking about the issue, which led to a power struggle between the circuit court and the county commission over juvenile department funding that went before a state board last year.

"Now there is just so much bitterness," he said. "It is just almost to the point that I don't care."

Divided commission

The county commission has been divided over what to do. While Jones early on expressed support for building a scaled-down detention center, commissioners Larry Bock and Joe Gambill said last year that there weren't enough juveniles being detained to warrant building a new detention center. Fewer than half of the 10 cells in the existing center were filled much of the time in 2001.

Grimm, citing safety concerns, closed the center after a juvenile offender started a fire in a cell in August 2001. The county had to house its juvenile offenders in other counties' detention centers while the cell block was shut down.

The detention center reopened in December of that year after the county made $35,000 in improvements, including the addition of electronic locks to improve fire safety.

The center now houses six detainees a day, on average, Rhodes said.

Long opposed to building a new detention center, Bock voted against spending $61,000 on a consultant last year. He said it was a waste of money. But Gambill joined Jones in deciding to hire Huskey.

Huskey's preliminary report was released late last month. It recommends the county build a new detention center. But Bock said the preliminary report hasn't convinced him a new center is needed.

Still, he agrees that the parties need to sit down and talk about the issue. "There has to be some give and take there," he said.

Bock said upgrading the existing center, which opened in 1974, might be the answer.

Bock said the commission needs to make a final decision after it meets with the consultant.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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