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Va. city considers housing juveniles in jail basement to ease transport burden

Sheriff Michael Moore is advocating for a temporary solution due to his deputies spending up to 15 hours traveling as far as Tennessee to transport juvenile inmates from housing facilities to court

Portsmouth City Jail

Portsmouth City Jail is seen along the Portsmouth, Virginia, waterfront on Oct. 11, 2023. (Billy Schuerman / The Virginian-Pilot)

Billy Schuerman/TNS

By Natalie Anderson
The Virginian-Pilot

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — City leaders are exploring whether the basement of Portsmouth City Jail can support overnight stays for juvenile inmates to reduce the burden of officers and deputies transporting them to court from housing facilities hours away.

Until last year, the city had an agreement to house youth charged with crimes with Chesapeake Juvenile Services, which had been holding minors for other localities for more than 30 years. But Portsmouth no longer has a dedicated place nearby to house minors.

Sheriff Michael Moore told The Virginian-Pilot this month he was urging a short-term solution as his deputies have been tasked in recent months with traveling as long as 15 hours and as far as Tennessee to transport the city’s juvenile inmates to court from housing facilities.

Moore and Chief Judge Diane Griffin of the Portsmouth Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court expressed the sense of urgency at a City Council work session last week, calling on members to come up with a more sustainable short-term solution. Griffin said she sent a letter to the city urging their action last April, adding that while judges try to release as many children as they can, some are dangerous.

“I know that the manager and the mayor have been trying to work on this but I cannot tell you how urgent it is that we do something,” Griffin said. “The practical and logistical problems that this has created are extraordinary.”

Following a request from council member Mark Whitaker, council unanimously agreed to direct Interim City Manager Mimi Terry to begin an assessment of the basement and determine the feasibility of using it to support overnight stays for up to four juvenile inmates at a time. Terry said she’ll return with information about costs and a timeline, but any expenditure of funds would need a council vote.

Deputies would still have to make long drives to transport juveniles to housing facilities, but the overnight stays at the jail would provide a buffer either before or after a court appearance. Moore said longer stays would need authorization from the state’s Department of Corrections since juvenile facilities have additional regulations, such as on-site educational resources and a separation from adults.

Moore said water hasn’t been available in the basement since December 2022, so Terry said fixing the basement may include such costs. Terry also said the city is in the midst of locating and negotiating the acquisition of a building that can be used as a more permanent solution for juvenile detention.

“We’re willing to work with the city but we have to have some type of response and it has to be a decision made now,” Moore said. “We can’t wait on a prospective building in the future.”

Terry also noted this has been a problem not only because of Chesapeake’s decision, but changes in state law that affect other localities as well. Griffin explained that the Department of Juvenile Justice has implemented what’s known as an “override” where the juveniles’ probation officers no longer have the discretion to recommend anything other than secured detention for any child arrested on firearms charges, of which Griffin said have become more frequent.

In the meantime, Terry said she’s been working with Griffin and her staff to adjust the budget accordingly for transportation needs.

Griffin estimates an average of 18 children per month need to be placed in detention, adding that some are scattered across Williamsburg, Winchester, Charlottesville, Bristol, Goochland County and Alexandria. Up to 26 children were spread across the state in November, she said.

She also said the per diem amount per child fluctuates between $190 per day at Chesapeake’s facilities and up to $300 in facilities in Northern Virginia. She estimates the detention efforts are costing an average of $100,000 per month, once reaching a high of $135,000.

“Take $100,000 (or) $150,000 and let the sheriff get that basement fixed up so it can be used for juvenile detention,” Griffin said.

Though the consensus was unanimous, council member Bill Moody echoed the need for urgency but also expressed skepticism that the basement could be an option.

“The real solution is, it’d be nice if we could send these kids back home and have them keep them in the homes,” Moody said. “Obviously they’re in some cases danger to society so that needs to be taken into consideration.”

Council member De’Andre Barnes said he’s not against the idea but would want to see the basement before voting in support of it as a short-term solution for youth.

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