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Investigative Unit: New juvenile jail sits unused because there's no money to run it

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BUNKIE – A $20 million juvenile jail that justice officials have dreamed about sits unused, essentially collecting dust amid the rural farmland of Avoyelles Parish.

A decade ago, youth corrections officials hoped the facility would be a shining example of ways to help troubled youth. But, with no money to open it, the building has been sitting vacant after construction was complete more than a year ago.

The Acadiana Center for Youth was supposed to house 72 youth and employ about 124 people. The state's budget issues have forced it to remain closed – housing no kids or employing no one.

When featured in a WBRZ News 2 Investigative report Tuesday, video showed the building covered in weeds – in a clear state of near abandonment.

"There's a lot of disappointed people in the area that see that as a waste of money really," Dustie Tagliariano said. "That money could have been put to better use for something they could fund."

Tagliariano lives across the street.

The latest proposed spending plan for the state takes away partial funding for the facility. Lawmakers couldn't' find the $11 million dollars needed to staff and operate the center.

Currently, the contractor that built the facility said he's paying $15,000 to $20,000 per month to keep the utilities on so the buildings do not rot. He declined to do an interview.

Representative Franklin Foil is the Vice Chair of  Appropriations.

"The department came to us with a vision for a new juvenile facility," Foil said. "We appropriated the money in 2011 and 2012. The facility is finally completed and now they are telling us they don't have enough money to fund the facility."

Foil said he is just as aggravated as the taxpayers. He blames the Office of Juvenile Justice since it was that agency's plan to construct the facility.

"We rely on the department when they make a request for new construction that in their plan for moving forward, they have the budget to run the facility," Foil said. "We go with the department's plan, and we were surprised when things came up short."

Meanwhile, taxpayers like Tagliariano are reminded of the state's bad budgeting every time she goes outside.

"If you know you can't fund something, why are you going to build it, promote it and get people's hopes up that we will be able to help troubled youth's around here," Tagliariano said.

If the state finds the money to finally open the Acadiana Center for Youth this year, it would likely take six months to hire staff and get everything ready. The state said it wouldn't open until next year at the earliest.

The Office of Juvenile Justice released the following statement:

"The juvenile justice reform efforts of 2003 and 2004 created a focus on serving youth in a secure care environment that would provide the best opportunity for rehabilitation. After studying the Missouri model of care, system partners agreed to recreate this model in Louisiana. Essential to this model is creating a series of smaller, regionalized facilities (72 beds or less) housing youth in dormitory settings.
 
As the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) moves forward with realizing its shift from a punitive to a treatment model, attention was given to creating a plan for replacing or modernizing its facilities to reflect a secure, but more open approach to care and custody. In addition, attention was given to the potential to save operating expenses related to old, outdated facilities.
 
As of March 2018, OJJ operates three secure care facilities for males in different areas of the state, including Bridge City Center for Youth, in Jefferson Parish, near New Orleans; Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe and a satellite Swanson Center for Youth in Columbia in Caldwell Parish. Jetson Center for Youth in Baton Rouge was depopulated in January 2014 in anticipation of the opening of a fourth secure care facility, Acadiana Center for Youth, in Bunkie, Avoyelles Parish.
 
The Acadiana Center for Youth will allow OJJ to reduce the populations at Bridge City Center for Youth and Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe to a more therapeutic capacity. It will also provide the Central/Southwestern region of the state with its first and only secure care facility.
 
The effort to find a location for this facility began in 2008. A site was selected in 2011. Once the site was located architectural design work was completed and construction began during the summer of 2016.
 
In the past few years, OJJ's total budget has been reduced dramatically, but support remained for creating more suitable environments for rehabilitating youth. Unfortunately, budget reductions have continued to plague the agency's budget. At this time, OJJ is facing dire cuts to its community services division.
 
If FY2019 reductions are restored through the legislative process, OJJ will pursue funding to partially or fully operate the Acadiana facility. (projected annual operating budget for the facility is $11 million)."

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