Prison Director Jackie Crawford asked lawmakers Tuesday for permission to re-open Southern Nevada Correctional Center as a prison for young offenders.
She said the prison system is receiving more and more offenders between 14 and 22 years old. She said they have become a serious management problem because they are too young, vulnerable and often too impulsive to turn out into the main yard with the hardened criminal population at High Desert prison. But she said they are still in prison for serious crimes.
"They are hard-core compared to most juveniles," she said.
She said the target inmates are those with a prison sentence of five years or less - typically for robbery or burglary. She said they typically have emotional or mental health problems, lack of education and often have substance-abuse problems. Crawford said they are currently in a segregated wing at high Desert State Prison but would be better off in a separate facility away from the adults.
She said she wants to turn SNCC into a prison designed for their needs, including educational services, vocational training, mental health and substance-abuse treatment and re-entry programs to prepare them for release into society.
At the same time, she said that would get more than 340 young offenders out of the unit in High Desert and make that space available for adult offenders.
"Placing them in a separate institution, I think, is essential," she told a joint subcommittee of Senate Finance and the Assembly Ways and Means committees.
Crawford told lawmakers this is the group of offenders they have the best chance of rehabilitating into productive members of society.
"If we're going to begin to address needs and issues, this is the population I believe you're going to get the most bang for your buck," she said. "This is the population to invest in because if you do not reach this body of people, you will see them time and again back in your facilities."
Lawmakers agreed with the goal. But they raised questions about the price tag for the added staff and programs.
The proposal asks for 236 staff - which subcommittee Chairwoman Kathy McClain, D-Las Vegas, pointed out is 50 or so more than the staff which historically operated the prison. That would add at least $2.5 million to annual operating costs over what it would cost as an adult prison.
Crawford pointed out there are many more types of programs in all prisons - but especially for youthful offenders - than in the 1970s. And she said the juveniles are "impulsive" and often unpredictable, requiring more staff to keep control.
She said other states operating similar young offender facilities have even higher staffing ratios and that she believes this is the level of staffing needed to make the young offender prison a success.
The payoff is reduced need for prison beds in the future because fewer youths who go through this program will commit new offenses and return to prison, she said.
The educational programs raised staff concerns as well because the $2.5 million estimated cost is in neither the prison budgets nor the Department of Education.
McClain asked staff to work with prison staff on those issues.
n Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or at 687-8750.