Concerns voiced by a Nebraska Crime Commission analyst about too little space at the new juvenile justice detention center don’t come as a surprise. From the get-go, Douglas County officials have made clear they are pursuing a national model that takes a different approach to services for youths in county custody.
Their strategy centers on stepped-up services for youths and their families, reducing the need to place as many boys and girls in detention, with less physical space needed for that purpose. That model has worked at the county juvenile centers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Douglas County officials visited those facilities in 2018 in developing plans for a more effective and efficient juvenile program here.
The Minnesota policy resulted in significantly shorter stays and smaller numbers of youths being detained compared with the detention population and lengths of stay currently seen here. A Douglas County Sheriff’s Office representative found the security arrangements at the Minnesota centers up to standards and appropriate.
Concerns voiced by Denny Macomber, director of the Nebraska Crime Commission’s Jail Standards Division, focus on the Douglas County facilities’ inability to double bunk youths and otherwise expand space if the number of youths served increases. By plan, rooms at the new center will be 77 square feet each, compared with 90 square feet for rooms at the county’s current facility at 42nd Street and Woolworth Avenue. The county has long planned for the new center to have a 64-person capacity. The current facility can hold more than 100.
Macomber’s concerns won’t prevent the State Jail Standards Board from approving the project. The plans as submitted meet the state’s jail design and construction standards, he says.
This situation makes clear Douglas County’s obligation to have the full array of programming in place when the new center opens in 2023. Success of the county’s treatment-focused approach, now and in coming years, hinges on the strength and flexibility of its rehabilitative programming. It’s vital that the county and partner organizations coordinate effectively to deliver all planned services and demonstrate the value of placing those supports in a single location.
The downtown facility’s less-stressful atmosphere will provide an important benefit, in contrast to the jail-like environment of the county’s current facility. It also makes great sense to place the juvenile detention center side by side with the the expanded courthouse space being built south of Harney Street. As a result, the county will finally end its practice of taking juveniles, in shackles, back and forth from the current detention facility and the courthouse, where the youths — already traumatized or struggling — often often sit for long periods in the same area with adults charged with crimes.
How well the Douglas County juvenile detention center works will depend on far more than the physical facilities. Effective planning, coordination, funding and staff competence all will be vital for the county to make real progress in helping youths find the right path for the future.