Detention center opens

Published 11:12 pm Tuesday, August 5, 2008

It would be nice if Dallas County could keep the beds at its new juvenile detention empty, but that’s realistically not going to happen.

The facility’s grand opening and open house Tuesday morning met great with great fanfare. with most expressing a wish to keep as many young people out of trouble as possible.

For years, the county’s lack of its own detention center forced District Judge Bob Armstrong to send problem children elsewhere, or worse, let them off with a warning.

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“I recently attended a judges’ conference, and studies show that immediate consequences have the biggest impact on changing behavior,” Armstrong said. “The longer you wait, the less likely you are to help a child. This is going to be the best thing for getting a handle on juvenile delinquents.”

The 20-bed addition to the Dallas County Jail was a $2 million project that the county completed without borrowing money. It houses 12 males and eight females and employs a staff of 21.

Sen. Hank Sanders stood in front of a crowd of about 50 people on a sweltering morning and talked about a mean streak that he inherited from previous generations in his family. It led to a confrontation with his mother that involved an axe and nearly turned tragic, and it almost forced him to give up on himself.

That was before his mother convinced him otherwise.

“You never know what a child is going to become, and you can never tell what a child is going to do by what he’s doing now. You just can’t,” Sanders said. “My mother told me I was the meanest child. I used to provoke her to no end … If someone hadn’t touched my life, I’d probably be in jail or probably be dead. That’s why it’s important to touch young people’s lives.”

The center is more than just a lock-up, insisted Cecil Hopkins, chief probation officer for Dallas County. The staff will make an effort to give its youths the tools to get their lives back on track.

“We work with the schools, and we’re going to continue to work with the schools,” Hopkins said. “This is just another tool. We’re not going to put them in here and forget about them.”

Although it’s hard to say when the facility’s profit will begin to offset its cost, the county’s savings begin immediately.

A local detention center cuts out an annual cost of $300,000 to transport youths around the state. It also allows them to stay connected with their families.

“We’d get 13 and 14-year-old kids that weren’t bad kids, they just did bad things,” Probate Judge Kim Ballard said. “We’d send them to Hale County, Baldwin County or Shelby County, and they were completely separated from their families. Now they’re closer to home, and from a human rights standpoint, that’s our first priority.”