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Lucas juvenile justice center remains half-empty

It's a new facility with state-of-the-art security equipment, computerized control systems, a polished facade, and fountain gurgling in the main lobby.

It's also half empty.

More than a year after the Lucas County Juvenile Justice Center opened at 1801 Spielbusch Ave. to replace the dilapidated, overcrowded, and often unsafe Child Study Institute down the block, many of the 125 beds have never been used.

Part of the reason is that many “medium-risk” youth are being diverted from behind bars to a nearly 2-year-old community detention program run by the East Toledo Family Center.

Moreover, when planners began sketching the blueprint for the facility, they were coming off an all-time high in local juvenile crime, fed by street gang turf battles and drug wars of the early and mid-1990s.

The Child Study Institute was chronically overcrowded. Populations often bulged to more than 100 youths in a facility built for 75. Cots on the floor were the norm.

Planners built in extra space for the new facility.

“We didn't expect it to be full the first day it opened,” said John Alexander, chief of staff for the Lucas County commissioners. “We were building the facility for the future. We wanted to make sure we could handle the increases and decreases in the need to detain juveniles.”

But crime dipped - big time. And now judges and magistrates try to keep the population hovering at 55 youths at the lockup.

According to local officials, the state mandated that the facility accommodate 125 beds in exchange for its $6.5 million check for the construction.

But according to the state, local planners came up with the number.

“They put it in their application, the need for 125 beds. They were the ones that asked for it,” said Kevin Miller, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Youth Services. “We agreed to it.”

Dan Pompa, administrator for Lucas County Juvenile Court, disagreed.

“If it wasn't on paper, it was a gentlemen's agreement,” he said.

Either way, the building remains half-empty. But both state and local officials say that's OK, given that crime rates fluctuate.

Either way, there is little choice, Mr. Pompa said.

Facing budget cutbacks from a dollar-strapped Columbus, there is simply no money to add staff now, he said.

In two years, Lucas County's allocation funds that can be used for detention center operations dropped from more than $4.3 million to less than $4 million.

So officials are revisiting an idea they've bounced around from time to time: renting out bed space to other counties.

Mr. Pompa said opening an empty, 16-person unit would cost $400,000 to operate. That includes the cost for extra staff, he said.

Talks are preliminary; a decision would be up to the county commissioners.

“All the equipment is there,” he said. “I could have it up and running in a matter of hours.”

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