After Nome detention facility closure, some fear youth sent out of the region won’t return

The Nome Youth Facility. (Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM)
The Nome Youth Facility. (Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM)

The Nome Youth Facility now sits largely vacant after its funding was cut from the state budget and it ceased its normal operations on July 14. In the roughly two months since then, six youth from Western Alaska have been sentenced to detention elsewhere, leaving the 14 bed facility in Nome to serve as a temporary holding place.

One of those was a Kotzebue-area youth who would have been sentenced to the facility had it still been in operation. When a judge sentences a youth to detention, Juvenile Justice Director Tracy Dompeling says there are a variety of factors that can determine where that sentence is served.

“The first place that they go in detention may not be where they ultimately end up for that longer-term stay,” she said. “We obviously take a look at the needs of the youth; what does the population look like at the other facilities where the youth may be going? And again, we don’t want to overcrowd some of our other detention facilities so we’re taking a look at what space is available throughout the state.”

Dompeling says many court proceedings like hearings, can be done on the phone, minimizing the travel required for detained youth. One of the six juveniles has already been released; two are in Johnson Youth Center in Juneau, and three are at the Mat-Su Youth Facility. In these cases, the youth initially were sent to McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage before being reassigned.

But in Nome, the concern is that the region might not ever see those kids again. Earlier this month, the City Council met to discuss plans to reduce recidivism. During that meeting, Behavioral Health Services Director Lance Johnson made a stark observation.

“We’re going to send our kids out of region and we’re going to lose a lot them, especially when they age out,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate.”

That large Nome Youth Facility building, Johnson notes, could be used for services that benefit the city like transitional housing or vocational training. But currently only the Nome Juvenile Probation office and its five staff members fill the empty space, after 18 staff positions were eliminated with the closure of the Nome Youth Facility in July.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy estimated $2 million would be saved in the state budget by cutting the facility. Right now, Dompeling says they don’t have any figures compiled for what the state has saved so far.

“I do know as far as a reduction in the personnel cost there is a considerable savings there,” she said.

Dompeling says right now there is no plan for long-term sustainability and whether the team will continue to utilize the old facility or relocate to a new building.

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