Gov. Dunleavy's vetoes could shut down the Nome Youth Facility

DHSS

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Gov. Mike Dunleavy's budget vetoes could shut down a youth detention facility serving much of Northwestern Alaska.

There's been push-back from the Alaska State Legislature and members of the public on this decision to veto funding for the Nome Youth Facility.

“We’re a big state,” Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D – Anchorage, said Sunday. “I think we have an obligation to provide a criminal justice system not just for urban communities, but for rural communities as well.”

The 14-bed detention facility provides supervision, education, rehabilitation, and mental health services for young males and females in Nome, Kotzebue, and 28 surrounding villages.

According to a 2017 feasibility study by the Department of Health and Social Services, the facility was remodeled in 2007, adding eight extra beds and staffing 18 positions. By 2016, it was only being used at 36 percent capacity, and costing around $2,800 per day ($2.8 million per year) to operate. DHSS recommended keeping the facility open, despite these numbers.

“It’s not cheap,” Wielechowski said. “But if you think the cost of taking care of these kids is expensive now -- the cost to keep kids in jail later on and for the rest of their lives is astronomically more expensive."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2015 the total cost per inmate in Alaska state prisons was $49,800, with $317 million allocated to prisons in the state budget. The DHSS 2017 feasibility study calculated cost per day per youth at the Nome facility at $1,500, over $560,000 per year per youth.

Wielechowski says if the facility remains closed juveniles from Northwestern Alaska would likely have to be transported to the Mat-Su Youth Facility – an expensive relocation taking them away from their only support network.

“They’ll be away from their communities, away from their friends, away from their families,” Wielechowski said. “I think the concern is the kids really need the community infrastructure up there that they have with this program.”

Those advocating to keep the facility open say the staff is supportive and dedicated to working with troubled youth, and the quality of care helps to reduce recidivism rates in Alaska.

Wielechowski says the Legislature would have to override the governor’s veto to secure funding to keep the facility open. If funding is not secured, the Nome Youth Facility will officially close July 14th.

The Office of the Governor responded to media requests saying the Nome Youth Facility has been operating below capacity. The state will provide transportation to other facilities for juveniles detained in Nome, Kotzebue and surrounding villages. They estimate transportation costs at $300,000, but say shutting down the facility will account for a $2 million reduction in state spending.

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