Plan to close youth prison questioned


CARSON CITY -- Legislators questioned Wednesday whether Gov. Jim Gibbons' plan to close the maximum-security Summit View Youth Correctional Center in Las Vegas would save money or just lead to problems at wide-open rural centers where offenders would be moved.

They said that the state still must pay off costs for constructing the $15 million Summit View youth prison near Nellis Air Force Base and that the Elko and Caliente facilities, where some 40 offenders would be sent, might not be secure enough for them.

Summit View is built like a prison with razor wire fencing. The rural youth training centers do not have fences. They are cottagelike settings where the staff members make sure offenders don't just walk away.

Department of Health and Human Services Director Michael Willden told legislators the state can save $3.7 million by closing Summit View. Layoff notices have been sent to facility workers.

Legislators are reviewing proposals by Gibbons to close Summit View and cut state agency spending by 10 percent between March and June 30, 2011, the end of the state's two-year budget cycle. Summit View is on the governor's cut list, but a decision to close it will not be made until the Legislature goes into a special session on Feb. 23.

Because of declining state tax revenue, Nevada's government must reduce spending by 20 percent, $881 million. Less than half of the potential cuts have been identified publicly by the Gibbons administration.

Willden told the Legislature's Interim Finance Committee that officials have no plans for erecting fences around the Caliente and Elko training centers if Summit View offenders are moved there. The two training centers house a combined 260 offenders but have space for 40 more.

"They are staff-secured facilities," Willden said.

On its Web site, the Division of Child and Family Services, which runs the three facilities, calls Summit View a maximum-security residential facility designed "to segregate serious and violent juvenile offenders from lower level offenders."

It was built for 96 offenders but houses less than half that number, ages 12 to 18.

Caliente and Elko are referred to as "staff-secure" facilities on the state Web site.

Ben Kieckhefer, a spokesman for Health and Human Services, said officials would not recommend closing Summit View if they thought that maintaining security at the two rural centers would cause problems. He said the proposal to close Summit View is strictly a cost-savings measure.

"It's really an issue of whether we can afford to keep it open," Kieckhefer said.

"If we thought safety was an issue, we wouldn't be doing it," he said in a phone interview.

"This is what they do professionally, and it's a professional opinion that they can manage it."

Chrystal Main, a spokeswoman for Child and Family Services, said some of the crimes young men at Summit View have committed include larceny, assault with a deadly weapon, sexual offenses and domestic violence.

Jeanine Lake, the Las Vegas union representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, local 4041, which represents Summit View workers, said employees received layoff letters last week.

Lake hasn't seen the letters, but she said she has been told workers with the highest seniority will be allowed to transfer to the Caliente facility. About 50 employees are at the facility.

She said it's not an ideal situation to house Summit View's serious offenders in the same facilities with less violent offenders.

"Most of these kids are one step away from prison," Lake said. "It could pose a very dangerous situation for the kids at Caliente and Elko."

Larry Carter, assistant director of Clark County's Department of Juvenile Justice Services, said Summit View's closing would affect Southern Nevada families.

Carter said that in 2009, 40 young men from Clark County were housed at Summit View. Six inmates were from Washoe County, he said. At the very least, Carter said, it will be an inconvenience for families and friends to travel hundreds of miles to see their loved ones in Elko or Caliente.

"The heaviest impact is definitely on Las Vegas families," Carter said.

Kieckhefer said Child and Family Services Department reviews the records of each youth offender and determines the appropriate placement. Elko has only male offenders, and Caliente houses males and females in separate cottages.

He said state teleconference facilities in Las Vegas would allow parents of offenders to see and speak with their children if they were moved to the rural facilities.

No parents showed up at the Wednesday meeting to protest the closing of Summit View.

Perhaps the most notorious incident at the facility occurred in 2001 when 19 youths commandeered a rooftop.

Las Vegas police surrounded the facility, privately operated at the time. The offenders tore apart air-conditioning units on the rooftop and threw the debris, rocks and their clothing at police, prompting police to fire back with bean bag rounds and pepper spray.

After three hours on the tin roof in 110-degree heat, the teens surrendered. No injuries occurred.

During Wednesday's hearing, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford said the state must still pay off the bond for constructing Summit View. Annual bond payments are $1.2 million.

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, was critical of the idea of mixing violent and nonviolent offenders in the same facilities. She said it made more sense to cut enrollment in the Caliente and Elko youth training centers.

Carter testified that closing Summit View would increase costs to Clark County by $447,000. He questioned whether community-based services for the offenders would be available in rural settings.

He expects the county would have to place five more youth offenders in its juvenile centers if Summit View is closed. And the county would be hit with higher transportation costs because it would have to take offenders to Caliente or Elko.

Citizens can give their views on Summit View and other cuts during a 9 a.m. to noon town hall meeting Saturday in Room 4401 in the Sawyer Building, 555 E. Washington Ave. A similar hearing will be held in Reno.

Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Contact reporter Antonio Planas at aplanas@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638.

 

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