Each year in South Carolina, thousands of juveniles detained by local police are sent to secure facilities to await hearings, and in most counties that means driving them to the state's only detention facility in Columbia.

In contrast, neighboring Georgia and North Carolina have networks of state-run juvenile detention centers spread across the states. Both states have populations a bit more than double the population of South Carolina, but Georgia operates 20 juvenile detention centers and North Carolina runs six.

These are not facilities where juveniles are sent as part of a sentence, but rather, where they are sent for as little as a day or two prior to an initial hearing. Some are further detained prior to adjudication, which is the juvenile version of a trial.

South Carolina leaves it up to local governments to build detention centers if they don't want to use the one in Columbia, which was designed to hold 72. Only Charleston, Richland and Greenville counties have their own facilities.

"We're all having to run them to Columbia, and it is a big deal," said Terry Van Doran, detention director at the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office.

"Of course, Columbia charges a fee for every day they are there."

The state collects a $50-per-day fee, but for local police and sheriff's departments, the larger concern is that the trip to Columbia can take an officer off the streets for a full shift each time a juvenile needs to be put into detention, or brought back for a hearing.

Detaining a juvenile even for the short time prior to a family court hearing - a maximum of 48 hours, not counting weekends - requires two round-trips to Columbia; one to take the juvenile there, and one to bring them back for a hearing.

The distance can also create a difficult situation for the child and the parents, and the distance makes it harder for the child to meet with a lawyer, typically a public defender, in the county where they were taken into custody.

"It does make access to the kids difficult," said Keshia White, the assistant public defender who handles family court cases in Berkeley County. "I really can't meet with them until they are brought for the hearing."

The kids can run the gamut from runaways to teens accused of grown-up crimes.

"You might see some kids in there for disturbing school, but generally it's not their first offense," White said. "Generally, I see more serious offenses for kids who are in detention - burglary, armed robbery, or a serious assault."

A detained juvenile might be held briefly, until a family court hearing. If their detention continues, there's another hearing in 10 days, and if detention continues until an adjudicatory hearing, they could be held for months.

The large issue for local law enforcement is the time and expense involved in transportation.

The Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, for example, made 163 round-trips to Columbia to transport 128 juveniles during the 12 months ending June 30, 2013.

In North Charleston, which includes a large section of Dorchester County, Mayor Keith Summey said the tri-county Charleston metro area needs a regional juvenile detention center, rather than one serving only Charleston County.

"I think it's something we need to talk about, as we keep growing," said Summey, who has brought up the issue at several public meetings. "If you've got a police officer who has to go to Columbia and bring somebody back, you're talking about four hours to go there, and then another four hours to bring them back."

North Charleston has an agreement pending with Charleston County that will allow juveniles who live in the Dorchester County section of North Charleston to be detained in the Charleston County facility. The city will pay the same $50 per day fee that the state would charge.

The Charleston County Sheriff's Office said an agreement is also pending with the city of Charleston, which includes a portion of Berkeley County.

While those agreements could address the issue for North Charleston and Charleston, they would be no help to other jurisdictions in Dorchester and Berkeley counties.

Who would pay?

One problem is that while local law enforcement agencies bear the burden of transporting juveniles to Columbia, it's the county governments that typically bear the cost of building and operating juvenile detention facilities.

"Dorchester County, Colleton County, Berkeley County - we all agree," said Van Doran. "We would like the Department of Corrections to step up and put in a facility."

But that's very unlikely to happen, said Larry Vanderbilt, associate deputy director of the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice.

"Detention has traditionally been a function of local government," he said. "We have no proposals in to the Legislature to build additional facilities of any kind."

Vanderbilt said it's important to know that the initial decision to detain a juvenile in a secure facility is made by local law enforcement.

"It is logistically difficult to transport all the way to Columbia, but it is one (option) that law enforcement can choose," he said.

Vanderbilt said one alternative is to use the state-funded network of "jail removal homes" which are single-family residences whose residents have agreed to accept and supervise juveniles charged with crimes.

"We actually pay for that service, with no cost to local government," he said. "So, an additional option, other than letting a juvenile go or putting them in detention, is sending them to a jail removal home."

Too convenient?

Considering that it is up to local officers and deputies to decide whether to place a juvenile in detention, some people worry that having a local detention center could lead to more juveniles being detained.

"There's an argument I've heard, which is that the reason we have such a high incidence of kids in Charleston in detention is because we have a detention center," said Ashley Pennington, circuit public defender for Charleston and Berkeley counties. "In other words, Charleston has the luxury of it not being a big deal."

Susan Dunn, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina, said juveniles should not be locked up out of convenience, because incarcerating a child is "one of the most likely things to turn you into an adult criminal."

"What we have is, a lot of kids spend a lot of time in jail before they are adjudicated," Dunn said. "How you decide who is going to be detained to begin with is the real critical thing."

Knowing that detaining a child will mean having to drive them to Columbia creates a disincentive to detaining them, she said.

In the 12 months ending June 30, 2013, juvenile cases were filed against 1,687 Charleston County residents ages 10 to 16. That's 7 percent of the county's population in that age group, while statewide, 4 percent of that age group went into the juvenile system.

Of the 1,687 cases, 457 involved detention at Charleston County's facility, while 62 cases were classified as violent or serious, according to state records. The county facility is currently holding three youths accused of attempted murder, but the most common offense for those detained is violating probation.

Because of the short periods of time most juveniles spend in detention, Charleston County's 26-bed facility had an average daily population of just 17, according to Maj. Eric Watson of the Charleston County Sheriff's Department.

"It benefits Charleston County a great deal," said Watson. "We don't have to worry about the travelling cost, it cuts down on overtime, and we also keep more officers on the streets longer."

Juveniles who must stay in the county's detention center are allowed to have visitors.

"For the families it's a whole lot better, knowing that their juvenile is close at hand," said Watson.

He said the Sheriff's Office spends just over $1.7 million yearly operating the center.

The state detention center's $50-per-day fees doesn't seem so large compared to the cost of operating a local center. Dorchester County, for example, has spend $18,225 since July 1 on detention fees.

Greenville County's new detention center, which opened last year, cost $1.9 million to build. Charleston County spends nearly that much every year to operate the existing detention center, with about two dozen employees.

"That's the $10 million question; who would build a facility, and who would staff it," said Van Doran. "The biggest expense, by far, long term, is staffing."

Reach David Slade at 937-5552