County commissioners discuss improving juvenile justice services

Published 6:00 am Saturday, April 15, 2023

ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Commissioners got an update on juvenile justice efforts in the county at their meeting Thursday, including the work being done to design a new juvenile center and to hire needed staff. 

Trial Court Administrator Carrie Smietanka-Haney and Trial Court Family Division Administrator Elvin Gonzalez reported to commissioners on their efforts to develop a strategic plan for improving juvenile justice services in the county. Berrien County is one of 10 counties around the nation to get assistance to develop a new plan. 

Efforts to improve juvenile services have moved into high gear in recent months with the acknowledgement that the current juvenile center facility in Berrien Township is outdated and needs to be replaced. The county has hired two engineering firms to develop plans to build a new juvenile center on county owned land in Benton Township. 

Gonzalez said a group of key stakeholders have met and recommended having the new juvenile center provide an array of services including prevention and early intervention. The goal is to keep lower risk juvenile offenders out of the juvenile justice system and provide more services to youth throughout the county. 

“It’s absolutely critical to partner with the schools as a first line of defense for supporting kids,” he said. “We need successful academic partnerships to keep kids out of trouble. People talk about the school to prison pipeline and studies show that those who are not successful academically or don’t attend school are at higher risk.” 

Gonzalez noted that past efforts such as the county truancy academy established in 2001 to target middle school students with attendance problems was having good results but failed in large part because school districts didn’t want to share their student state aid dollars for such an effort.  

He and Smietanka-Haney said a big problem since the pandemic has been staffing. They noted that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has 45 vacancies and both the Riverwood Center and the Berrien County Juvenile Center have shortages. They are currently ramping up plans to both recruit and retain people. 

Gonzalez said the juvenile center operates five different programs when fully staffed but is now only operating with two of the programs: an electronic monitoring tether program and a 16 bed secure detention center.  

He said they have not been able to re-open the center’s 18 bed residential program. Not having a residential bed program has forced the county to send youth needing treatment to facilities in other parts of the country which costs the county $8,300 a day per individual and $3 million a year. 

He pointed out that the center has 10 youth specialist vacancies, a clinical director vacancy and three assistant supervisor vacancies. “There’s been a dramatic shift in the employment workforce in the human services profession, we’re not the only place struggling,” he said.  

Commissioners were told to expect an updated report from consultants later this month or early in May on both design plans for the new center and plans to keep the existing center operational until a new center can be built. 

Thursday’s meeting also featured discussion on other topics. Commissioners heard an update on the culvert failure on Point O’ Woods Drive in the Benton Harbor area from last week’s storms and learned it could take eight to 12 weeks to complete the repairs. 

Commissioners also heard a progress report on efforts to put up a new communications tower in the south county. The county received a multi-million grant last year to help defray the costs of the project. The county faces a deadline associated with the grant on getting the work done. 

The new tower was initially expected to be built next to the former AEP operations center in Buchanan but that site was nixed after the discovery of Indian artifacts there. The county then looked at a nearby site near the Buchanan Township fire station on North Main Street. 

County Administrator Brian Dissette and Commissioner Jim Curran reported that tests are still being done on whether that site will work and said a back up plan is in place in case problems arise. They said they’ve worked out an agreement with Lake Michigan College to construct the new tower on the college’s land at Bertrand Crossing in Bertrand Township. 

Questions appear to remain whether the county will still buy the AEP building for a county emergency operations center or build a facility on Bertrand Crossing land if the new tower goes there. 

Dissette also gave a heads up on the county’s plan to spend $15.8 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds on infrastructure projects. He said construction costs have tripled and commissioners will be asked to prioritize the projects they had initially approved. He and Curran said the emphasis will be on doing projects involving life safety issues.