No klink for kids

A row of cells is seen inside the former Pike County Juvenile Detention Center in McComb.

The prayers of Pike County lawmen were answered last Friday night in the form of an unexpected autumn deluge — not because of the stubborn heat wave or prolonged drought, but because the South Pike-McComb rivalry game ended early in the face of inclement weather.

The game was the focus of anxious anticipation among lawmen in the week leading up to kickoff. It followed a brawl a week earlier that shut down the Pike County Fair, where as many 10 fights allegedly erupted between groups of juveniles and deputies ran out of pepper spray in their attempt to quell the disturbance.

Lawmen say these incidents illustrate a serious problem that has them and court officials frustrated and pleading for help.

A lack of available space in detention centers and a simultaneous uptick in property crime committed by juveniles has created a catch-and-release paradigm that lawmen say is like fighting an uphill battle. Their request: build a juvenile detention center in Pike County.  

“We need a detention center in Pike County,” Chief Sheriff’s Investigator Chris Bell said. “Our community is losing our kids. They need rehabilitation.”

Pike County closed its former juvenile detention center — the old McComb city jail — in February 2013 in the face of a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which alleged incidents of abuse and neglect and charged that conditions in the facility violated federal standards.

Pike County officials contracted with the juvenile detention center in Adams County and also use the detention center in Hattiesburg when needed.

But Bell said that’s been far from an ideal solution.

Deputies routinely arrest repeat offenders. The facility in Natchez is already operating at capacity so it often cannot offer any space for offenders from Pike County. For that reason, arrested juveniles are often released to the custody of a parent or guardian.

A 16 year-old-boy was recently accused of breaking into a car and stealing a gun in an upscale subdivision outside McComb. He allegedly committed another auto burglary in a restaurant parking lot days later after he was released to the custody of a guardian. Investigators matched surveillance footage from the restaurant to that from the home and arrested the youth at a traffic stop.

Bell said that the youth court is doing its job but the county needs help from the county supervisors.

But with four of five members of the board of supervisors about to leave office at the end of the year, they’re deferring big decisions to the incoming board.

Plus, the cost of building a new detention center or rehabilitating existing property into something suitable puts the issue out of reach.

Youth Court Judge John Price said he came before the board of supervisors earlier this year and expressed his opinion on the dire need for a local detention center. He said that supervisors told him that the project would be expensive and that he would “have to make do.”

Sheriff’s officials say they are disheartened as they routinely solve crimes and make arrests only to run into the same juveniles time and again, and it’s become apparent that with a limited chance of being locked up and offenses eventually expunged from their record once they become of age, there’s hardly a deterrent to juvenile crime.

Bell said he understands the frustration of victims of property crime.

“I’m strongly in favor of building a juvenile detention facility,” Price said. “We really need it.”

Price said local law enforcement got lucky in reference to the South Pike-McComb game. In preparing for the game, Price contacted detention facilities in neighboring counties to ensure the sheriff’s department would have enough available bed space if fights broke out among juveniles. They wouldn’t.

“Natchez had two beds,” Judge Price said. “Vicksburg and Hattiesburg offered beds, but those other facilities are not obligated to provide them.

“There is a real need for us to have a facility,” he said.

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