Facilities Close, Construction Stagnates – Except in a State That Needs Closure and Stagnation?


The recession appears to be stopping juvenile facility building in its tracks, and even expediting the closure of existing buildings. Except in California, which has a lot of decisions to make about the future of its juvenile justice system and the facilities that are included in it.

"The impression I'm getting is that it's pretty slow right now," said Chuck Kehoe, who used to run Virginia's juvenile justice department and is a past president of the American Correctional Association. "You don't hear about many projects" being started.

Early readers of JJ Today will remember our updates on Tippecanoe County, Ind., which after decades of debate appeared ready to break ground on a juvenile justice center designed with input from youth development specialists.

Politicians wanted the center; judges and JJ leadership really wanted it; most of the public was okay with it. Then, the economy collapsed, and a council member got confused.

Despite the county's excellent bond rating (the best in Indiana) and unanimous support from the county's commissioners, the worsening economy frightened the county council enough that three of its seven members withdrew support for immediate construction of the center; they wanted to wait until the economy improved. That was still not enough to stop the center - until one pro-construction member, Councilwoman Betty Michael, accidentally voted the wrong way.

"We just all sat there stunned at the meeting," said Rebecca Humphrey, youth services director for the county.

But make no mistake: The economy did in this project. Before things started to spiral, Humphrey and other proponents had the support of all seven council members. It's hardly a unique case: Fear that the economy will continue to decline has endangered other new JJ projects, and may have expedited some facility closures.

Construction in general is slow in general in the corrections industry, but "for youth building particularly," said Steven Loomis, an architect with international planning and design firm AECOM. "I think there's been a much bigger focus on adult stuff, that's where states are deciding to put money."

Committing millions of dollars to construction is an immediate challenge. The other factor, Kehoe believes, is that local politicians are, by and large, more sophisticated about long-term commitments these days. Fewer county commissioners and members of other governing bodies are drawn to building projects just because some federal or state money is attached.

"They know enough communities [that] were burned with money for construction" in the past, Kehoe said. "Construction is only 20 percent of the total package. Anyone can build these places, but are you committed ... to running and staffing them for years? It's more than just bricks and mortar."

Some states have even seen closures of juvenile facilities. By year's end, New York will have closed 13 juvenile facilities and downsized three others in a two-year period, according to Edward Borges, a spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services. Further south on I-95, counties in New Jersey have closed juvenile detention centers or have announced plans to do so.

It is certainly an economically expedient time to close expensive operations. New York will save $16.4 million this fiscal year because of juvenile shutdowns ($5.5 million of which will be spent on community alternatives to incarceration). 

But New York and New Jersey could afford to close so many facilities only because the number of youth in their juvenile justice systems have declined significantly in recent years. New York went from a peak of 2,200 youths in secure settings during the 1990s to fewer than 1,000 today, according to Borges. In New Jersey, many of the state's counties have experienced a sharp decline in the  number of youths in their detention centers since Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative came to town.

The one enormous exception to the pause in building juvenile justice facilities and the rise in closures in California, which is home to about 16,000 detained or committed youths. (That's two times as many as second-place Texas.) As you might have heard, the state is careening toward bankruptcy.

Nevertheless, at least five major construction projects in California are likely to proceed this year. How did that happen? The state passed major JJ reforms in 2007 that forced its 58 counties to handle nearly all of their own juvenile offenders. Only the most violent offenders would be allowed into the state's Division of Juvenile Facilities-run buildings, which have garnered a horrendous reputation over the years. 

To help counties adjust to this new world order, the JJ reforms included two things. First, the state made modest grants to counties to develop new diversion and after-care programs. Second, the state made $100 million available through its Corrections Standards Authority for construction projects. Conditional awards of that money were made in March.

There is no question that some county facilities need renovation, and a few areas can use new facilities to prevent youths from being sent hours away from their families. But increasing the number of juvenile beds in the state is unnecessary, JJ advocates say, because there are  thousands of empty juvenile beds scattered around the state.

The $100 million was initially carved up for six winning proposals. All of them significantly increase bed space, and five propose either to build a new facility or replace an old one. One winner has already pulled out of the process: Monterey County was not awarded nearly enough state money to build the 150-bed juvenile hall it desired, so it will wait for another time.

But it's not the $100 million construction pot that JJ advocates want the state to re-direct. It's the $383 million that the state is spending to keep the state facilities open to handle 1,600 offenders - which averages out to a staggering $234,000 per youth per year. 

The San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice issued a policy study this month that calls for closure of the entire Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF), proposing that its enormous budget could be better spent funding county probation offices to handle the remaining juveniles in state custody.

"The state could send all of those 1,600 kids at DJF back to counties, and there would still be 1,000 spare beds," said CJCJ Executive Director Dan Macallair.

The big challenge there is how to assimilate murderers and other violent felons into county systems that have never had to handle those types of juvenile offenders.