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La Plata County explores using DeNier as new community corrections center

Hilltop House would be shut down, moved to Bodo
La Plata County is exploring converting the shutdown Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center into a new community corrections facility.

La Plata County took the first steps Wednesday toward converting the now vacant Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center into a new community corrections facility.

At a work session, La Plata County commissioners directed county staff members to start seriously evaluating what it will take to convert the empty space, and how much it could potentially cost.

The Colorado Department of Human Services abruptly shut down the youth detention center in August 2018 after accusations arose of inappropriate treatment of youth detainees by the contracted company, Rite of Passage.

With no plans to reopen the facility as a youth detention center, the building and property will be transferred from state ownership to La Plata County, which is expected to become official in the next few weeks.

As a result, county officials and commissioners have discussed what is the best future use of the property, and it appears the preferred option is to convert the building to be able to serve as a new community corrections facility.

La Plata County and Durango’s current community corrections center is known as Hilltop House, located at 1050 Avenida del Sol, on property owned by the city of Durango.

For years, the state of Colorado was in charge of contracting community corrections in La Plata County. But a recent change in state procedure will require La Plata County government to contract it out sometime in 2021.

The change has county officials considering converting the DeNier Youth Services Center so all community corrections activities are under the county’s umbrella, including ownership of the community corrections building and property.

Tom Harms, chief probation officer for the 6th Judicial District, said the DeNier Youth Services Center building would work as a community corrections facility, but it’s going to take some remodeling.

For one, DeNier has only 28 beds, whereas Hilltop House has about 54, which are almost always at capacity. A gym in DeNier could be converted to accommodate more beds, though it would be a loss losing the recreation area, he said.

“There would have to be some money put into it,” Harms said.

In recent days, some members of the community, and even some Durango city councilors, have floated the idea of using the DeNier building as a homeless shelter.

But county officials have reiterated the building is built as a correctional facility, not a homeless shelter.

One idea floated Wednesday was if Hilltop House becomes vacant, it could be used as a homeless shelter.

Indeed, city officials last week said they were exploring a plan to use the existing Hilltop House community corrections building if the center moves into the vacant DeNier Youth Services Center.

County commissioners on Wednesday expressed support for county staff members to start an in-depth look into what it would take to move Hilltop House to DeNier, and if it is financially feasible.

“If we’re going to be the agency contracting community corrections, a county-owned building makes more sense than another jurisdiction owning it,” said Commissioner Julie Westendorff.

County Manager Chuck Stevens said the Colorado Department of Justice has offered to help with designs and best practices for a remodeled building.

“We won’t be doing it on our own,” he said.

Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said, while not opposed to a community corrections facility, she’d like to see the county explore a broader range of uses for the land, just as a matter of course.

“If we can broaden it out, and get more engagement from the community, so we’re more informed about the highest and best use,” she said.

County spokeswoman Megan Graham said the new requirement for La Plata County to contract out community corrections services is not expected to add a financial burden to the county.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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