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Construction Decisions -- Assessing the Need To Build

Juvenile detention and corrections have become big business, with more and more jurisdictions spending increasing amounts of time, energy, and money to expand detention and corrections capacity.3 As public agencies, private organizations, architects, and court systems approach construction more aggressively than ever, more and larger juvenile facilities come off the drawing boards every day in a building surge that has begun to rival the exponential growth of adult facilities in the 1970's and 1980's. Facilities for young people are no longer an afterthought, buried in the recesses of civic concern and public budgets; they are "big-ticket" items occupying communities' full and serious attention.

Reasons for Construction

Reasons for the recent explosion in construction of juvenile residential facilities are found in both fact and perception. On the factual side, crowding is widespread (Parent et al., 1994), making affected residential programs difficult to manage and not as safe as those operating at recommended capacities. Residents spend more time in lockdown, and program quality suffers (Previte, 1997). When staff must focus primarily on safety and security, effective intervention and treatment are compromised. In addition, because staffing levels rarely increase as quickly as the number of residents, crowded facilities often do not have enough staff to do the job well.

Another reason for the recent growth in construction is the large number of aging and outdated physical plants, many built during the construction booms following World War II (see Norman, 1961). Facilities built during the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's are fast approaching the end of their useful lifespan, an end brought nearer by the ravages of crowding and (for many facilities) inadequate maintenance and repair budgets. Such older facilities also were never intended to withstand the intense uses they now frequently must serve. While juvenile facilities once served a largely nonviolent and manageable population (with few serious offenders), they now serve juveniles with profound behavioral problems and learning deficits and significant mental health needs, many of whom present security problems (Cocozza, 1992; Otto et al., 1992). A large number of facilities are inappropriately configured to meet these needs.

A need for increased capacity is another factor driving construction. Until recently, jurisdictions nationwide have experienced an increase in juvenile arrests overall and in arrests for increasingly serious offenses. In communities that have their own secure facilities, the increase has caused buildings to become crowded and/or juveniles to be turned away. Jurisdictions that rely on other communities for secure beds are frequently told that no room is available. In both situations, one immediate solution has been to construct new bed space. With more beds, communities reason, there will be no crowding, operations will improve, and problems will go away.

In many instances, communities have been correct in perceiving a need for added capacity. For example, in jurisdictions where population has doubled or tripled over the past 20 years (often with accompanying changes in juvenile offenders and in the general social fabric), institutional capacities may now be totally inadequate. In many communities, especially those where juvenile court placement practices have not changed, comprehensive master planning has confirmed a need for additional capacity to respond to current and future needs. In other communities, however, studies have shown that juvenile facilities are housing youth who pose no significant threat to community safety or the court process and who could be managed as effectively in less restrictive and less costly programs and settings (Boersema, 1998; Boersema et al., 1997; Jones and Krisberg, 1994). In these instances, the perception that secure custody is necessary for all juveniles being detained (and perhaps many more) conflicts with the reality. When placement in a secure facility is a jurisdiction's primary or only treatment option, it becomes an expensive catchall, one that replaces less restrictive and equally (or more) appropriate alternatives (Dunlap and Roush, 1995).

Alternatives to Construction

When the perceived need for added capacity conflicts with reality, a business-as-usual approach to secure custody generates high bed-need projections, which, in turn, result in excess capacity. Excess capacity then leads to continued overuse of secure custody for juveniles and an immediate and lasting strain on financial resources. A jurisdiction may build its way out of problems, but only temporarily. The numbers usually catch up with the space available -- and usually more quickly than anyone expected.

In response to these concerns, many jurisdictions are pursuing alternatives to construction. This approach, which uses a range of variably restrictive residential and nonresidential services, is commonly called "the continuum of care." Similar to the graduated sanctions model set forth in OJJDP's Comprehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders (Wilson and Howell, 1993), the continuum-of-care approach requires jurisdictions to examine closely how to direct resources toward managing public safety and meeting the needs of the greatest number of juveniles (Bilchik, 1998). The continuum-of-care approach commonly considers and implements a variety of services (such as home detention, electronic monitoring, afterschool and evening report programs, day treatment, restitution, shelter care, and staff-secure residential programs) as alternatives to physically restrictive detention custody (DeMuro, 1997; Guarino-Ghezzi and Loughran, 1996; Howell, 1997).

The JAIBG program raises two important questions related to maintaining a strong continuum of services. First, given JAIBG's endorsement of the concept of graduated sanctions, will jurisdictions develop and expand the range of sanctions to serve as consequences for delinquency? Second, will an overreliance on juvenile institutions as a first or primary sanction occur that will weaken other sanctions or the continuum itself? The development of a strong continuum of services would seem to help achieve JAIBG's goal of having sanctions that are graduated, immediate, and accountability oriented. In addition, a strong continuum may address many jurisdictions' lack of dispositional options (sanctions) between probation and incarceration. By providing juvenile court judges with options, a strong continuum of care will improve the juvenile justice system's ability to deliver appropriate sanctions and hold offenders accountable.

3Juvenile detention refers to the custody process that occurs between the time of a juvenile's arrest and the time of his or her adjudication or disposition. It includes a range of placement alternatives that vary in restrictiveness from home detention to secure detention. Correctional placements, by contrast, take place after a juvenile has been adjudicated as an offender and a dispositional plan (or sentence) has been determined. Correctional placement alternatives range from small and open residential settings to large, State-operated, maximum-security corrections facilities. Some jurisdictions allow the dispositional placement of juveniles in detention facilities, an action that complicates the distinction between detention and corrections.

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Construction, Operations, and Staff Training for Juvenile Confinement Facilities JAIBG Bulletin   ·  December 1999