NOME YOUTH FACILITY— The facility was closed due to state budget constraints two years ago.

Closure of Nome Youth Facility still impacts regional youth offenders

By Julia Lerner
Two years after the closure of the Nome Youth Facility, tales of teen vandalism, fights and theft grip Nome’s social media pages while Nome police officers struggle to address the problem.
Though juvenile crime around the state has fallen over the last several years according to Angie Wenger, the Chief Probation Officer of the Northern Region, many Nomeites have expressed concern with the level of youth criminal activity over the last several months.
Posts in Nome’s community Facebook pages detail groups of teenagers spray painting vehicles and stealing unattended items, while others report gunshots and violence. The Nome Police Department, already understaffed, has acknowledged the incidents, including a recent incident where a teenager attempted to shoot an officer, but can do little about it without a facility to house minor offenders.
Alaska Statute 47 prohibits officers from placing anyone under the age of 18 in a jail or prison such as Anvil Mountain Correctional Center, meaning minors arrested in the region can only be detained in a youth facility.
“[Minor] suspects and perpetrators would be taken into custody like any other individual that would be arrested for a crime,” explained Nome Chief of Police Mike Heintzelman. “The only difference is that, if it was a serious enough crime, the officers would contact the Juvenile Probation Officer and arrangements would be made at the Juvenile Detention Facility. Unfortunately, the one in Nome was closed down.”
The Nome Youth Facility, which closed on July 14, 2019 due to cuts to the state budget, used to house minors from across Western Alaska, including kids from as far north as Point Hope to as far south as St. Michael. The facility could house up to 14 individuals, typically between the ages of 14 and 17, though some were as young as 11. NYF residents attended school through the Nome Public School District and participated in supervised extracurriculars, fished, supported elders, and attended court-mandated therapy while in residence.
When the youth facility was operational, Nome’s juvenile probation officers used it to house minors responsible for public safety issues. The closure of the facility “complicates things quite a bit,” Wenger said.
Without the facility, police are forced to release regional kids who are involved in minor offenses, while those involved in more extreme, violent incidents are sent out of the region, often to the McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage.
“There were six juveniles in the facility at the time when it was closed and they were moved out of the region, away from their families,” explained Alaska State Senator Donny Olson. “That was a crying shame.”
Today, any youth arrested in Nome is sent to McLaughlin, Wenger said.
The last Nome minor to be transported to McLaughlin was sent just under a month ago, following an incident in late August. The minor was arrested after attempting to fire an unloaded handgun at NPD Sergeant Alex Le.  
“We’re sending the most vulnerable youth away from their hometowns, their families, their support systems as well their culture,” Olson said. “I’m very much opposed to that happening and also concerned that children who leave the region will probably not return, and if they do, they tend to come back as more hardened criminals because of their separation.”
Often, children housed at the McLaughlin facility have charges much more serious than minors from the Northwest Region, and regional representatives worry about how that might impact Nome’s youth.
“In our region, you don’t see a lot of really hard crime,” according to Representative Neal Foster (D-Nome). “A lot of it may be alcohol related … but then when they go to the city … a lot of these other crimes are much more [serious]. Maybe its gang related, or weapons related. There’s a better chance of rehabilitating when they’re in Nome but also, when they’re here we’re keeping them from becoming more hardened as well.”
Paul Labolle, chief of staff to Foster, said the recidivism rate for minors who stayed in the Nome facility was much lower than those of minors who were sent out of the region.
“It’s been a real challenge to the community,” said Nome-Beltz Middle High School Principal Jay Thomas. “When the [youth facility] closed due to budget cuts, it left a gap between a place like McLaughlin and kids running in the streets.”
Thomas has been fielding calls from concerned Nomeites about how the school plans to address the rising reports of teens vandalizing local property. “I’ve gotten probably five or six phone calls from community members saying, ‘What are you going to do about your kids that are running in the streets doing vandalism?’” he told the Nugget. “Honestly, we’re going to educate as is our job, and that’s all we’re going to do. We’re not going to suspend them. We’re not going to put them in detention. That’s not our role.”
Thomas says addressing student behavior outside of school hours and off school property is not the school’s jurisdiction.
“We don’t respond to what’s happening downtown. That’s not our business,” he told the Nugget. “We know that some of our students have some legal issues downtown, vandalism and some other things that are going on, but that doesn’t transfer to the school. If it’s those issues in our setting, then we have a protocol.”
Though former NPD chief John Papasodora called the facility “essential” in a 2016 memo to the City, the Nome Youth Facility closed in 2019 after a series of state budget cuts for the fiscal year of 2020.
“Though hard data is not available, the number of violent juvenile offenders is on the increase,” Papasodora wrote in his memo. “The need to segregate these youthful offenders from society is critical to protect the victim(s) as well as to eliminate the possibility of continued violence. … Without NYF, there is no other facility in the Nome area where juveniles can be safely detained.  The ‘hard’ holding areas are not part of any other facility and there is no other staff that is trained to manage youthful offenders.”
The legislature initially allocated $2,784,300 for the facility to remain operational, but Governor Mike Dunleavy vetoed the funding. When Foster tried to return the funding to the budget, the governor again vetoed it.

“The governor has shown us just time and time again that he’ll veto it,” Foster said. “There’s no appetite on the governor’s side to try to get the money back in.”
The Nome Youth Facility, located on East Fourth Avenue, is still owned by the state, which pays to maintain the building and keep the lights on.
Nome Mayor John Handeland hopes state leadership will continue to push for funding for the Nome Youth Facility before the state has the opportunity to get rid of it.
“Palmer Correctional Facility was reopened after being shuttered for 5 years. Just saying…,” he posted on his personal Facebook page. “Maybe Nome Youth Facility needs to be reopened (before it is given away)?”
“I think there’s always a chance [the facility could reopen],” Olson told the Nugget. “We certainly put it in [the budget] every year to try to see what we can do, but until we have a change in administration, I don’t think we have much of a chance of trying to [reopen] it because [Dunleavy is] trying to take money away from rural Alaska, like the power cost equalization and other rural areas of funding.”
Wenger works with juvenile probation officers around the region, including in Nome and Kotzebue, and says that the closure of the facility brought some benefits to the community, too. “It enhanced the need for lots of community collaboration between our division and law enforcement,” she explained. The closure of the facility meant more open communication with police, with tribal leadership, and with families in smaller communities around Nome.
“Our goal is to try and work as best we can with young offenders to try to steer them on a different path, so they don’t become adult offenders,” Wenger said. “There’s more connectedness to the youth and the family if they are talking with their elders … hearing how [their actions] impact the community and trying to make amends with their own community is more impactful than something that is coming from myself as a probation officer.”

 

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