While the current detention center has obvious problems, if commissioners decide to fund construction plans without first finding out what youth need, Shelby County risks embarking on a long, costly journey with little to no payoff.
The call for a new facility stems from an assessment of the existing facility’s dilemmas. The facility features limited access to natural light and little space for recreational activities. Additionally, the current detention center is not able to provide education to youth when the population reaches 60 or more.
These conditions certainly do not describe the environment one wants for detained youth. Yet this does not mean building a new facility is the best fix for these problems. Youth detention is expensive. Research shows that alternatives to detention may be more cost-effective and beneficial.
Before funding construction plans, therefore, the commission should first identify all the needs of the youth population — including youth charged as adults — and consider alternative solutions.
The current discussion around the new youth detention center suggests that foresight is lacking. For example, the current detention facility has space for up to 112 youth but held only 47-86 youths awaiting trial at one time during 2018. The new facility will be able to hold 80-120 youths awaiting trial.
Already, the new facility seems too large for the current population, let alone the smaller population one would expect if forthcoming initiatives are successful.
After all, the number of youths detained is based in part on juvenile justice policy. Reforms in other areas — such as an increased reliance on diversion programs that redirect youth to interventions outside the formal court system — might reduce the necessary bed-space in a new facility, influence its design or change the decision to build one at all.
Moreover, research shows that community-based alternatives to detention may be both more cost-effective and beneficial for youth than housing them in facilities. Youth held accountable in the community are able to receive intensive programming while retaining supportive relationships.
In contrast, youth held in detention facilities are at risk for having poor mental health, low educational attainment and weak employment prospects.
Commissioners should also take into account information on the need for and use of alternatives to youth detention — including diversion, community-based supervision and behavioral health services — before making their decision.
Spending taxpayer money on construction plans without a thorough look at all needs and possibilities is not only counterproductive, it’s potentially wasteful.
In addition to the $1.3 million slated for its design, the new detention center is expected to cost $25 million. Given that detention is not the only way to address youth misbehavior, taxpayer money and county time may be better spent on other, more effective solutions.
Under the leadership of Mayor Lee Harris, Shelby County is taking steps to support youth. The county should continue on this path by pausing to consider whether a new youth detention center is best for kids and the county before committing any funds to the project.
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