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Dropping juvenile crime rate turns cells to community centers

Apache County youth explore the new community center in St. Johns, dubbed The LOFT to capitalize on the trendy, industrial styling. The space once housed the county's juvenile detention center. (Photo courtesy of Amy Love/Arizona Supreme Court)

Apache County youth explore the new community center in St. Johns, dubbed The LOFT to capitalize on the trendy, industrial styling. The space once housed the county’s juvenile detention center. (Photo courtesy of Amy Love/Arizona Supreme Court)

Apache County’s new community center in St. Johns is industrial chic right down to its name: The LOFT.

Anywhere else it might have been a hip apartment building. It has the exposed metal beams and minimalist lighting that would fit right in with downtown Phoenix.

You’d never know it was once a juvenile detention center.

Heather Murphy, director of communications for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the idea of repurposing empty detention centers is catching on all over the state, including in Yuma County, as the rate of juvenile crime and subsequent detention populations continue to decline.

She called it an “inspired approach” to saving the counties money while reaching the kids who have more to gain from centers like this than they do from detention.

On opening day of The LOFT, nearly a third of the local high school's student body showed up to enjoy amenities like pool and ping-pong tables. Apache County Superior Court Judge Michael Latham said the space would also offer proactive services to reach kids in need and provide educational resources. (Photo courtesy of Amy Love/Arizona Supreme Court)

On opening day of The LOFT, nearly a third of the local high school’s student body showed up to enjoy amenities like pool and ping-pong tables. Apache County Superior Court Judge Michael Latham said the space would also offer proactive services to reach kids in need and provide educational resources. (Photo courtesy of Amy Love/Arizona Supreme Court)

“In rural Arizona, there just aren’t a lot of safe spaces for teens to gather, and this is really an inspired effort to create something new that the kids will value,” Murphy said. “It’s a special space made just for them.”

Unable to reconcile the $1.2 million annual cost to keep its doors open, Apache County closed its detention facility in 2015.

Apache County Superior Court Judge Michael Latham said the county’s juvenile detention population had slowed to a trickle, amounting to an average of just 1.7 kids per day. It could go six, seven, eight weeks without a single kid, yet the center had to be staffed as a full-time facility just in case someone happened to come along.

That meant two detention officers at all times, and a full-time teacher and medical staff. It didn’t make fiscal sense.

The county instead contracted with Navajo County to hold its juvenile offenders for $90,000 a year, a drop in the bucket compared to the previous costs.

But officials had to find yet another alternative when Navajo, too, opted to close its detention center in June.

Pinal County has since been contracted to take both Apache and Navajo counties’ juveniles, charging per kid rather than a flat rate per year, according to Latham. Through that partnership, he said detention costs are expected to plummet below $20,000 per year.

That solves the fiscal problem but does nothing for the youth who remain in Latham’s community in need of services or simply somewhere safe to go after school.

For five months, Latham himself joined renovation efforts to transform the former detention center into a place where high schoolers can come and go freely.

Apache County Superior Court Judge Michael Latham personally assisted with the renovations to this former juvenile detention center. He joked the county now has a surplus of ceiling tiles after clearing them away and painting the ceiling black to highlight the metal fixtures. (Photo courtesy of Amy Love/Arizona Supreme Court)

Apache County Superior Court Judge Michael Latham personally assisted with the renovations to this former juvenile detention center. He joked the county now has a surplus of ceiling tiles after clearing them away and painting the ceiling black to highlight the metal fixtures. (Photo courtesy of Amy Love/Arizona Supreme Court)

The building was already there, so they made simple but effective changes, like knocking away boring ceiling tiles and painting the ceiling beneath black to set off the galvanized steel pipes.

And two cells were transformed into respite rooms apart from the center but always at the ready for a child trying to get away from a bad situation for the night.

“There’s nothing like this,” Latham said. “Everyone knows there’s a need for it. It’s just that nobody has done it.”

The LOFT is open to all kids who have graduated from the 8th grade but not yet graduated high schoolfrom 2:30 to 9 p.m on weekdays. They’re free to entertain themselves with ping pong and a music room equipped with guitars and an electric keyboard. They have access to Mac desktops and free internet. And adults are always around to offer guidance.

Latham said the renovations cost $65,000, and staffing The LOFT comes at no extra cost to the county because it utilizes court staff.

Another Legacy Teen Center will follow in the mountainous Round Valley, where the styling will again influence the facility’s moniker: The LODGE.

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