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Youth detention facility in Billings near capacity, seeing more violent teen offenders

Youth detention facility in Billings near capacity, seeing more violent teen offenders
Posted at 6:11 PM, Mar 06, 2024

BILLINGS — A majority of teens involved in crimes will spend some amount of time at the Ted Lechner Youth Services Center in Billings, but as more teens are committing more violent crimes, the center is reaching capacity.

“Today we’re at 23 kids in a 24-bed facility,” Valarie Weber, the youth services center director, said on Wednesday. “Our facility is licensed through the (state) Department of Corrections, and we are not allowed to go over capacity. So, when we hit 24, we have to make decisions about who comes in and who stays.”

Weber has been the director for 28 years and can only remember one other time, before now, when multiple teens were being held at the youth services detention facility for violent crimes.

Youth detention facility in Billings near capacity, seeing more violent teen offenders

“Three juveniles involved in a robbery and homicide, this was about 15 years ago in our community, and other than that, that was the only time when there have been multiple juveniles arrested for either homicide, accountability for homicide, or attempted homicide. Right now, we have many,” Weber said.

The detention center, which serves the area from Belgrade to the border of North Dakota, now has youths coming in for robbery, felony assault, sexual assault and homicide.

“Every time there’s a shooting, I hold my breath and I get that feeling in the pit of my stomach, do I know the kid that got shot? Was it a kid? Was it an adult? Do I know the person who pulled the trigger?” Weber said.

According to the Billings Police Department during a press conference, the average age of teens arrested for homicide in 2023 in Billings was 15.5.

Weber said there are things the community can be doing to help combat the problem of young violent offenders, but it isn't what many people think.

“Juvenile detention is not a deterrent to crime. In fact, it’s actually the opposite. The single most important way to make sure that a kid goes to jail is to put them in jail the first time,” Weber said.

Instead, Weber said more mental health services need to be provided.

“We need to put our money where our mouth is. Our taxes need to be paying for more mental health services because we are going to pay if we leave untreated mental health problems in the adolescent system, it's even worse than it is in the adult system, we’re going to pay the bill for that,” Weber said.