Friday, March 29, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Delinquent children have a better shot at reform when they’re closer to their families, schools and communities, state officials say.
But to be able to bring some of Clark County’s incarcerated youth closer to home, the state is considering a deal that would mean incarcerating children from outside Nevada — a somewhat ironic twist on the goal of rehabilitating youthful offenders.
Under a plan proposed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, Nevada would reopen the Summit View Correctional Center with a private, nonprofit contractor. The state closed the troubled center in 2010 when it was no longer financially feasible to operate and shipped the incarcerated juveniles to a center in Elko.
A private contractor, however, could import delinquent children from other states, allowing it to make enough money to fund the reopening and operation of the 96-bed youth prison.
Advocates of the plan say it will save Nevada money and benefit the state’s youthful offenders.
Critics, however, decry the effect it may have on the children brought in from other states.
“Accepting kids from out of state undermines the very goal of keeping kids close to home,” said Rebecca Gasca, lobbyist for the Campaign for Youth Justice.
Via its contract with a nonprofit provider, the state would pay for 50 beds for Nevada children. The private nonprofit could then charge more money to take out-of-state kids for the maximum security facility’s 46 other beds.
“They don’t have to stay within the state rate,” Amber Howell, administrator with the state’s Division of Child and Family Services told legislators at a hearing this month. “They can do a per-bed rate so they might be able to generate revenue from those beds.”
Under the plan, the state would save money and accomplish its goal of putting Clark County children closer to home at the facility north of Nellis Air Force Base. The nonprofit would also “recuperate some additional costs by charging for out-of-state beds,” Howell said.
Many Clark County youth offenders have been imprisoned in Elko because Summit View, the only juvenile correctional center in Clark County, closed in 2010 due to budget cuts. Reopening it would bring Nevada children closer to home.
“The idea is that if they need to be committed to the state for correctional care, you place them closer to their families, schools and all that community support,” Howell said. “It makes transitioning back to the community a little more seamless for them.”
Howell said it’s not unheard of for children to go to correctional institutions in other states, often to get programming they cannot receive in their home state.
Critics, however, said it’s wrong to treat the youths as “commodities” that can be swapped between states for higher rates, said Keith Uriarte, who represents the Nevada chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, chairwoman of the Assembly’s Ways and Means committee, said she doesn’t like privatization and has reservations about the plan, which is moving forward, with the facility expected to open later this year.
“If children do better close to home, the logic of allowing a private vendor to balance its budget on taking children away from home is troubling,” she said.
While acknowledging the state could do the same thing, she said she would have the same concerns about importing young criminals into Nevada.
“These aren’t the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ days anymore; these are serious crimes,” she said. “But we need to make sure the system works for them.”
Gasca said the reopening of the facility offers legislators an opportunity to look at sentencing reform and the need to keep kids imprisoned.
“The potential reopening of Summit View gives the Nevada Legislature the unique option to evaluate what kids are being incarcerated and whether or not incarceration is actually the best option,” she said.
The youth prison has had a troubled history, including an inmate uprising a dozen years ago when another private company was running the prison.
Howell said the state is taking proper safeguards to ensure past problems aren’t repeated under new private management.
“This time we’ve beefed up the expectations,” she said, noting that four nonprofits have applied to operate the facility. “They have to show their past successes and failures so we can determine what their track record is so that we can determine if they are an appropriate provider.”
The requirements to bid don’t say that the nonprofit has to take out-of-state children, but Howell said numerous times that the financial model makes it an attractive option.
Many states are trying to move away from institutionalizing children, leading Carlton to question how many children the private nonprofit would actually import from states that are successfully transitioning youth into alternative programs that don’t involve imprisonment.
“Their success is your failure,” she said.