OPINION: A Message From Sheriff Mike Lowell To The People Of Sweetwater County

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The following was written and submitted by Sweetwater County Sheriff Mike Lowell:

The Rock Springs Rocket-Miner May 18 story, “Budget reductions could end juvenile detention program,” while factual, does not tell the whole story.

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The story reports that I told the Sweetwater County Commission on May 16 that “steep budget cuts could mean the end of the juvenile detention program.” And while that is true, the real story – the whole story – is why the proposed cuts could eliminate the program and the sheer scale of what the Sheriff’s Office is, and will be, responsible for.

The new Sweetwater County Justice Complex, under construction at the site of the Sweetwater County Detention Center west of Rock Springs on U.S. Highway 191, will likely be complete by the end of this year.  The complex will encompass not only the entire Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office (Administration, Patrol, Detectives, Interview Rooms, Evidence & Property, Civil Process, Training Rooms, County Emergency Management, an Emergency Operations Center, and a Vehicle Impound-Storage Building), but both the County’s two Circuit Courts, the Sweetwater County Attorney’s Office, and the Public Defender’s Office.

On an average working day, over six dozen county and state employees will be working on site within the Complex, plus an average of 100-125 inmates at the Detention Center. The entire Complex will cover over 1,300,000 square feet (about 30 acres), which is over 1½ times that of the floor area of the White House and U.S. Capitol in Washington DC combined. Our Control Room Workers will be responsible for monitoring up to 153 cameras throughout the entire Complex, encompassing secured and non-secured areas between the hours of 7 AM to 7 PM, with a gradual decrease to 65 cameras between the hours of 7 PM to 7 AM.

In addition, our control room workers in Central Control will serve as the communication hub for an aggregate of Detention, Transportation, and Court Security.  Central Control will serve as the communications and control hub for all deliveries and employee entrances at the Justice Complex, plus parking areas to include five entry-point gates and an exit point gate. Central Control will also be responsible for monitoring underground walking areas/ prisoner holding areas and Circuit Courts, as well as prisoner flow and traffic entering and exiting courts. Other duties for Central Control will include data entry concerning personnel entering and exiting the Detention Center, both Circuit Courts, purchasing, deliveries, and all inmate transports.

The responsibility for providing safety and security for the entire operation lies solely with the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office, and I simply will not be able to provide that safety and security at a reduced budget level.

Barring adequate funding, in order to meet the security and public safety needs at the new Complex I will be compelled to eliminate programs and services that I, as Sheriff, am not obliged to provide under state law. Among these would be elimination of the Inmate Community Service Program, which has proven a boon in particular during the winter months to the Young at Heart Senior Center in Rock Springs and the Golden Hour Senior Center in Green River, where the inmates perform snow removal, and the Juvenile Detention Program.

Currently, only four county detention facilities in Wyoming are rated for juvenile inmates:   Sweetwater County, Laramie County, Natrona County, and Campbell County. As reported by the Rocket, from April, 1, 2016, to April 30, 2017, the Sweetwater County Detention Center housed a total of 174 juveniles — 115 from other jurisdictions and 59 from Sweetwater County.  The 115 out-of-county juvenile inmates served a total of 1,394 days, generating $271,830  – over a quarter of a million dollars – in revenue for Sweetwater County.

If our juvenile detention program is closed down, that quarter of a million dollars is gone. And we will then be compelled to house our local juveniles in out-of-county facilities at a projected cost of $224,475 annually; that’s nearly $500,000 in total.

Shuttering our juvenile detention program would have unfortunate consequences extending well beyond funding concerns. Local parents, for instance, would be separated from juvenile family members who are in the system by hundreds of miles, and their access to local counsel would be hindered. Transport to and from legal proceedings would also present major problems.

Our mandate at the Sheriff’s Office, legally and morally, is public safety. Our budget request is an increase, but a necessary one mandated by the existence of and our responsibility to not only the new Complex, but, more importantly, to the safety of the people of Sweetwater County. We operate frugally and will continue to do so. (In fact, aside from those budgetary items such as health care insurance, which are decided by County policy, the Sheriff’s Office budget has been virtually flat for at least three years.)  But the stark, black-and-white fact is that the Complex will represent new, additional staffing and operations challenges that must be met in order to satisfy those public safety standards – we ask only for the means to do so.

In closing, I want to assure the citizens of Sweetwater County that regardless of what the final budget numbers are, the Sheriff’s Office will continue to meet its obligations to the community and provide the best possible service in the most efficient way possible.

– Sweetwater County Sheriff Mike Lowell