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Vt. lawmakers address juvenile detention capacity crisis

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont state officials are in crisis management mode when it comes to housing juvenile delinquents. It comes two years after the closure of the Woodside detention facility and stalled plans to find a replacement.

“We need to do something and we need to do something like yesterday,” said Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage, during a hearing Wednesday before the Legislature’s Justice Oversight Committee.

There’s been a rise in violence among 16 to 18-year-olds throughout the state, according to Senator Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the vice chair of the committee. “Certain youth in Vermont are acting out in numbers that we haven’t seen in the past. It’s not just the presence of firearms, it’s the willingness to use firearms is what the change is,” he said.

The 97 residential treatment beds overseen by the Department for Children and Families are all full -- 52 of them occupied by juveniles. DCF Commissioner Sean Brown said pandemic challenges have forced beds off-line. “We’ve lost 50% of our in-patient residential capacity in this state from 2019 to now. And then on top of that, we have the challenges of not having a Woodside for the small number of youth that need that care,” Brown said.

Before Woodside closed in 2020, youths who committed the most violent crimes would have been held there. Now, they are housed at a secure facility within the Department of Corrections. “We can create space and we can flex our system to house youths but that’s going to come with some serious ramifications,” said DOC Commissioner Nicholas Deml told lawmakers.

When that happens, federal laws mandate that juveniles be separated from the general population. Deml says corrections staff are not trained to deal with youth and that finding the staff to do it is not easy. “The Legislature has asked us to really push youthful offenders out of the corrections system and we’ve worked very hard to do that and adjust to that reality. And then we would be turning back to say we’d need to bring them back into our system?” he said.

New facilities, including one proposed for Newbury, have been tied up in Environmental Court. Another potential facility at the old prison in Windsor was shot down by the town and the state.

Senator Sears says regardless of future plans, something needs to happen now. “I don’t want to put any kid in jail, but there are sometimes when there are little choices -- and it’s a difficult choice here,” he said.

DCF and DOC officials were given 10 days to come up with a plan to present to the committee.

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