State mulls privatizing youth detention centers

A screengrab of the Ketchikan Regional Youth Facility, from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services' Division of Juvenile Justice website

A screengrab of the Ketchikan Regional Youth Facility, from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services' Division of Juvenile Justice website

KENAI — The state is seeking contractors to look into the feasibility of privatizing four of its juvenile detention facilities.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is considering privatizing facilities in Kenai, Palmer, Nome and Ketchikan in an effort to cut costs as the Legislature looks to trim the state budget, The Peninsula Clarion reported.

The feasibility study is required by an agency reform bill that was passed by lawmakers but still awaits Gov. Bill Walker’s signature.

The study will focus on whether switching to private juvenile centers would cut costs and maintain quality of care, said Rob Wood, director of the department’s Division of Juvenile Justice.

“The Legislature is trying to do the best it can with the budget situation we have and is asking the state departments like mine to take a look at things that may help with that and may actually provide better service, too,” Wood said.

Wood said attracting a private company to Alaska’s short-term juvenile facilities could be complicated, though it’s a relatively common practice in the Lower 48.

“Most of the people who’ve been involved in privatization in the country have been major corporations who work on corrections and juvenile justice issues,” Wood said. “Alaska’s an expensive place to operate, though, and these are for-profit. That makes it kind of a difficult proposition for them.”

The facilities being studied are the department’s short-term detention centers, rather than longer-term mental health or substance abuse treatment centers. Wood said the department was told to look at some of their eight facilities, so they chose the smallest and most straightforward ones.

The contract for the juvenile detention study will be awarded July 11. The finished report will be presented at the beginning of the Legislature’s next regular session in January 2017.

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