Juvenile detention facility closer to reality

Posted: Sunday, November 19, 2000

Lobbying efforts in support of a proposed youth detention facility for the central peninsula have intensified in recent months, as backers seek to get the project on the governor's budget and eventually in front of the 2001 Legislature for funding.

Another in a series of public meetings on the project was held in Soldotna Tuesday, as members of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility Committee as well as representatives from the state's Department of Juvenile Justice discussed the need for an area facility in light of similar statewide projects currently operating or under construction.

The state Department of Health and Social Services identified the need for a youth facility on the Kenai Peninsula in its 1996 master plan. In 1999, land for the project was offered by the Kenai Peninsula Borough as well as the cities of Kenai and Soldotna before the state settled on a 10-acre parcel on Marathon Road owned by the city of Kenai.

The proposed peninsula facility will be modeled after the Mat-Su complex that opened this fall, said Tom Begich, the Community Justice Coordinator with the Department of Juvenile Justice. Begich said the proposed 10-bed peninsula facility, projected to cost $4.8 million, will be slightly smaller than the 15-bed Mat-Su complex. Both could be expanded to 25 beds, Begich said.

Proponents cite a long list of benefits offered by a peninsula facility, including keeping detained youth in contact with family instead of being sent to McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage. Other benefits cited include better agency coordination regarding delivery of services like substance-abuse treatment as well as reducing the amount of time law enforcement officers spend on juvenile-related calls. The facility also would create 14 local full-time jobs.

Mat-Su facility superintendent Ray Michaelson told the committee and assembled community members that the success of any facility depends on strong community support. He added the relationship between the schools, police and juvenile justice officials has produced results.

"I can appreciate the position you are in right now," Michaelson told the group. "Not so long ago we were talking about a facility for the Palmer-Wasilla area, and now it's a reality. Our youth crime and violence task force really took the idea of a detention center and fueled interest throughout the community."

Michaelson said an especially productive partnership within the community has been with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. The district has worked with state juvenile justice officials to develop prevention programs like probationary night school, aimed at identifying troubled youth and steering them away from possible entry into the detention system.

"I think it (night school) has had a good impact," Michaelson said. "The more you detain some of these kids, the less they get the message. We want detention to be a wake-up call."

Michaelson also cited a three-year, $3 million grant the school district recently received that has funded such projects as a juvenile assessment facility and a "school within a school" program for kids in danger of being suspended. The grant was part of the Safe Schools, Healthy Students Initiative passed by Congress in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo.

Michaelson said one of the more tangible results he's seen since the facility opened is that parents of detained youth are coming to see their kids.

"That 50-mile difference (to Anchorage) sometimes is an excuse for a parent not to go and see their child," he said. "We often hear a lot of excuses, and I think we should hold the parent to task. We don't want to leave them out."

He also added that law enforcement officials were pleased to have a closer facility.

"The police are certainly happy," Michaelson said. "The shift goes much more smoothly, and they certainly don't have to drive as far."

With the Mat-Su facility complete and construction under way on a similar complex in Ketchikan, Begich said the "pieces were falling into place" for the central peninsula facility. DHSS is making the capital funding request for the upcoming legislative session, and the project has to be included in Gov. Tony Knowles' budget, which is expected to be presented in mid-December. Knowles did not include the project in last year's proposed budget.

"What do we need to do to get it in the budget?" asked peninsula youth facility committee chair and current Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Pete Sprague, who heads up a diverse group of law enforcement, school district, social service and community leaders involved with the project.

"Even if it makes it into the governor's budget, the real issue is whether it will be funded by the Legislature," Begich said. "The fact that you have a legislative delegation that's been involved in this project is very helpful."

Begich said the DHSS master plan specified different years for completion of each project. He added that the peninsula facility's target date is coming up.

Sprague said he felt confident about the project's chances in the upcoming legislative session.

"Basically we've been ahead of the curve on the project for the last couple of years," Sprague said. "We've done a lot of groundwork. Other projects like Ketchikan and Mat-Su were ahead of ours, and now we're next in line. I'm feeling pretty good about it."

The committee has made its presentation to area civic organizations and has planned another public meeting for Tuesday at noon at the Homer Elks Lodge.

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