Minnehaha County mulls $50 million juvenile detention center
Expansion plans would mean more space for 16 counties, DOC
This story was originally published by South Dakota Searchlight on Oct. 25, 2022.
SIOUX FALLS – Minnehaha County commissioners may soon ask property owners to foot the bill for a $50 million replacement of the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) in South Dakota’s largest city.
A new Juvenile Justice Center would supplant the 53-year-old JDC with a modern facility twice as large. The project would add 14 beds for a total of 64, add programming areas and a courtroom, and allow juvenile corrections staff to organize small groups of young offenders into secure “pods” for meals, school and programming.
A detailed pitch for the new facility came during the Oct. 18 meeting of the Minnehaha County Commission. It marks the latest attempt to upgrade one of South Dakota’s largest pre-trial youth detention facilities, which serves 16 counties in the southeast and often houses youth committed to Department of Corrections (DOC) custody.
“I’ve been (talking about) juvenile justice for 12 years, and this is the type of facility we need,” said Cindy Heiberger, chair of the county commission.
The JDC in South Dakota’s largest city has seen its population grow for years, despite systematic efforts over the past decade to shift the focus of juvenile justice toward alternatives to detention.
“The kids we have right now are more dangerous kids,” Heiberger said. “They’ve committed felonies, and they need to be in secure facilities.”
Two options emerge
A 2010 push for a new facility ended with a decision to explore alternatives to detention; discussions in 2019 were put on hold to pursue other building projects, including a $48 million addition of a fourth floor to the Minnehaha County Jail.
The center’s average daily population dropped significantly from its high of more than 39 kids in 2011, after the county’s focus shifted to detention alternatives, according to a consultant report released in April. The trendline has crept up again in recent years, straining an aging facility more than a decade older than it was when the first set of plans for a new JDC were shelved.
Ultimately, though, the need for a new facility is mostly about safety and service for detainees and staff. The add-ons and workarounds to administer justice that meets modern standards are far from ideal, JDC Director Jamie Gravett said.
Gravett shares his office with a large-screen television used for virtual court hearings. The small, remodeled courtroom next door used for in-person hearings has holes in the wall, put there by angry underage defendants. Those defendants, angry or otherwise, sit just a few feet from the judge and court reporter.
“It’s not so much about the number of beds,” Gravett said. “It’s about having the right kind of space for programming.”
The latest JDC discussions began in May with workshops and interviews with staff, county leaders and juveniles. A group of commissioners, stakeholders and consultants traveled to Kansas and Missouri to tour newer detention centers, and had a virtual visit to a facility in King County, Washington.
In July, the Minnehaha County Commission hired the Sioux Falls firm Architecture Incorporated to conduct a feasibility study on the potential of rehabilitating and expanding the JDC or demolishing it and starting over.
The firm and other partners presented their findings and pushed for the demolition option on Oct. 18, which would cost about $1.3 million more than renovation. That pricier option, however, would cause fewer operational headaches for juveniles, law enforcement, parents and visitors, attorneys and detention center staffers during construction, the consultants said.
The $50.3 million rebuild option would be a 2-phase, 27-month affair with a 10% contingency. Juveniles detained during construction would stay put until the larger portion of the 67,000-square-foot facility opened.
The other option, a $48.9 million renovation, would play out in five phases, last 31 months, carry a possible 15% contingency fee, and force the relocation of detained children at multiple points along the way. The end result would be a 57,000-square-foot facility with 64 beds.
Given the efficiencies, energy savings and operational ease of the rebuild option, “it’s pretty clear” that the extra cost would be worth the investment, according to Tegra Group consultant Dick Strassburg.
“After we crunched all the numbers, it’s virtually the same,” said Stassburg, whose firm focuses on representing the county’s financial interests in building project discussions.
Staff, safety needs
A 64-bed facility could serve the county and its partners for up to 50 years, commissioners were told – a significant improvement from the status quo. The current 40-bed capacity wouldn’t keep up with regional demand for the long-term, according to a consultant’s report released in May.
The facility had 414 admissions in 2021, 165 of which came from partners and non-partners, and its average daily population rose from around 20 in 2016 to around 30 in 2021. Aside from Minnehaha County, Gravett said, the DOC contributes the largest share of juveniles.
When the facility is busy, Gravett said, it’s not uncommon for all eight of the youth being supervised in such a setting to be sent back to their locked rooms so staff can process a new arrival.
“Or if there’s an issue where maybe we have to deal with an assault within the building, we have to put all the kids down (back in their rooms) in order to allow staff to respond to that situation,” Gravett said. “Ultimately, we’re putting kids down too much compared to what we should be doing.”
A pod-style setup would alleviate those issues by separating youth into smaller groups in secure areas, eliminating the need for all detainees to gather at once for meals or other communal activities. The Minnehaha County Jail, the South Dakota State Penitentiary’s Jameson Annex and the South Dakota Women’s Prison have similar designs.
A larger Juvenile Justice Center would require more staff, Gravett said, but the layout and amenities – described by Architecture Inc. as “must haves” – would improve conditions for those who work with juveniles.
Staff needs are an important factor in design, the consultants explained. A larger breakroom and showers for employees would be welcome additions for staff, who face stressful situations and currently have only a tiny break room to cool off and refocus after breaking up a fight or stopping a suicide attempt. If a juvenile throws urine or vomit or spits on a staff member, that staffer has to clean up in the same shower space used by the detainees.
“We always think about the kids, but the staff is there longer than the kids,” said Gerry Guerrero of consulting firm HDR, Inc. “In order to recruit and retain, we still need those best practices: biophilic (natural) design principles, natural light, ventilation, areas to the outdoors.”
Statewide juvenile justice discussion
Discussions on a new facility in Sioux Falls are playing out as a South Dakota legislative committee ponders juvenile justice on the DOC side, and as public safety officials in Sioux Falls and Rapid City raise alarm bells about an influx of juvenile offenders.
The Legislature is widely expected to consider proposals on juvenile and adult corrections when it convenes in January. Lawmakers passed a criminal justice reform package for adults in 2013 that was designed to route non-violent offenders out of prison and into community based alternatives. A juvenile version of the reforms passed in 2015. Both have come under scrutiny amid rising crime rates in parts of South Dakota.
Regardless of legislative discussions, Minnehaha County property owners will likely foot the bill for a $50 million bond if county commissioners approve the project. The issue could be referred to a public vote if challenged within 20 days of the commission’s vote on the bond.
The JDC project would add about $63 to the taxes on a $300,000 home, according to Susan Beaman of the Minnehaha County Auditor’s Office.
Minnehaha County would be responsible for the entire tax burden, but payments from the 15 partner counties would ultimately cover around 30% of the cost through their contributions to annual operational expenses.
Commissioners took no action on Oct. 18, but discussions are set to continue in the coming weeks. Addressing a packed house that morning, Commissioner Jean Bender urged attendees to talk to their friends and family members about the detention center project, and to offer their thoughts and opinions to the board.
“We would really appreciate your input,” Bender said. “None of this is cheap, so it’s not a decision we will ultimately take lightly, and we are looking for feedback.”
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