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Bargain Basement Justice County To Try Putting Juveniles Into `Day Confinement’ Cells

Thirty days in the “dungeon.”

Spokane County judges - frustrated by an overloaded juvenile detention center - soon may be sending some young criminals to the basement.

There, a half-century ago, wayward youths were held in grim, windowless cells.

But juvenile justice officials aren’t planning to take the cells, made obsolete by modern health and safety codes, out of mothballs. They want to convert a chunk of the subterranean space into a “day confinement” program.

Each year, nearly 500 youths would go through the program, which punishes them without locking them up.

During the day, they would go to “school” in remodeled rooms and learn how to get jobs.

By nightfall, the youths would be fitted with electronic bracelets and sent home under strict curfew orders.

Because the computerized monitoring system isn’t foolproof, a pair of “trackers” would randomly visit homes to ensure compliance.

The $280,000-a-year program, scheduled to begin Aug. 1, already is drawing praise from state juvenile justice officials, who say it would be a first for Washington.

“It’s a good alternative for those youths who don’t need secure confinement,” says Rosalie McHale of the governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee.

If the experiment succeeds, McHale predicts it will be repeated in other counties with crowded detention centers.

Spokane’s 60-bed Mallon Avenue detention center has been full for nearly four years, forcing judges to release dangerous offenders early and accept “reservations” for scores of other criminal youths.

Voters, however, have rejected three bond issues seeking to enlarge the facility in the last two years. The most recent defeat came in November, when an $11 million measure fell short of the required 60 percent “yes” vote.

“Taxpayers have been telling us to reinvent juvenile corrections and that’s what we’re doing,” says Tom Davis, Spokane County juvenile services director.

“We want to bring some credibility back to the system,” he says. “This program will get rid of the waiting list (for detention time) so we can have more swiftness and consistency in applying punishment to crimes.”

Day confinement does nothing to solve the county’s need for additional maximum-security beds - used to house increasing numbers of violent youths, many of whom belong to gangs and carry guns.

But Davis says hundreds of youths on probation who thumb their nose at court orders would be held accountable for the first time in years. So would non-violent persistent offenders, such as prolific car thieves, burglars and vandals.

Not only does the program restore some of the system’s clout, but it costs less than jailing kids.

The cost per youth is estimated at $38 a day, compared with about $100 upstairs in the detention center.

Plans call for converting 1,200 square feet of basement space into three rooms, where Spokane School District teachers would tutor up to 20 youths.

Day confinement sentences would average two weeks. The maximum, as recommended by judges and court officials, is 30 days.

Davis is confident of obtaining county and state money to launch the program and hire a full-time coordinator.

Remodeling costs are estimated at $106,000.

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