Tippecanoe Watch #1: Background

This is the first of what we envision as a series of occasional updates about the design and development of a juvenile center in Tippecanoe County, Ind., population, 156,169.

Why Tippecanoe? For starters, it is incredibly fun to say and evokes a lot of history (Tippecanoe, a famous Indiana battle against American Indians, became the nickname of the leader of the U.S. troops, William Henry Harrison, who three decades later was elected U.S. president). More importantly, after more than a decade of public debate, the county is close to a final plan for a new center.

In 2006, Youth Today published an article about juvenile facility design, and how planning dictates much about its ultimate effectiveness. The examples in the article were Shenandoah Valley’s detention center in Staunton, Va., (good) and Connecticut’s juvenile training school in Middletown (bad).

We thought it would be interesting and educational to follow Tippecanoe County’s center as it moves from an idea to a sketch, a standing structure, and finally to a place that works with youth each day. JJ Today will look at decisions, big and small, made along the way. How many staff will be hired, and for what purposes? Who is managing contracts for construction, and what happens if there are cost overruns? Will they install regular or dry toilets?

We see the updates as being succinct, but we’ll take a bit longer today to set the scene.

Let the Tippecanoe Watch commence!

In 1991, the Tippecanoe County Juvenile Justice Task Force was formed to study a growing concern in the county: youth in its juvenile justice system were placed in faraway residential and commitment facilities. How far away? Award-winning author Julia Scherres got in trouble and was sent by the county to a reform school in the Dominican Republic, which she wrote about in her book Jesus Land.

The task force report, published two years later, centered on the following statement:

Our long term goal is to have a single, “under one roof” facility that would accommodate our previous recommendations. It would provide programs for immediate assessment, diagnosis, evaluation and early interventions. In addition, it would provide short-term residential stay with a focus on family involvement. It would also house administrative office space for programs and program personnel.

Then?

“Politics happened,” says Tippecanoe Youth Services Director Rebecca Humphrey. Commissioners and council members were not interested in the project again until 1999, when commissioner KD Benson was elected and new juvenile judge Loretta Rush took the bench.

“They both really have a heart for kids,” says Humphrey. “So that got the conversation going again.”

The three women, along with three others from Tippecanoe, attended a National Institute of Corrections training program, Planning of New Institutions, in 2001. In 2002, the county board of commissioners hired an architectural firm to do a feasibility study of what the county could reasonably expect to build and operate.

The recommendation that came back that year could be seen as pie-in-the-sky: a 36-bed detention center, a five-bed unit for youth in crisis, four beds for mental health observation, a center for alternative programs, and a residential center with 24 beds. Also, “full juvenile court and related court functions” would take place at the new center.

But like many counties, Tippecanoe couldn’t afford to fund its dream juvenile center.

Already feeling the pinch of federal and state funding constraints, the county faced new strictures when the state passed a law last spring capping property taxes. Now the county must balance the desire to keep its youths close with a need to spend frugally. There is also a taxpayers advocacy group keeping a hawkish eye on the project.

At the same time, exporting its juveniles is costing the county about $12 million a year, and the effectiveness of these placements is dubious. In 2007 – a year officials say was more or less typical – more than half of Tippecanoe offenders released from commitments ended up back in detention, according to Humphrey.

Now the county is trying to match the size of its planned center to the size of its budget. The on-site juvenile court was eliminated earlier this year, just after the property-tax cap was put in place. That cut the estimated cost from $25 million to $18 million.

The task of paring down the project further is being handled by DLZ, an Indiana architectural firm, and Kettelhut Construction, a general contractor based in Lafayette, the county seat of Tippecanoe. Planning has cost the county at least $250,000.

That brings us to the present.

The county commissioners voted in July to have DLZ continue to plan the center. They don’t control the bank accounts; the county council does. DLZ and Kettelhut will present the latest modifications of the facility’s recent plan to the council at an early September meeting.

We’ll update Tippecanoe Watch after that vote.

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