Does Facility Size Really Matter? Myth versus Reality on the Impact of Size in Juvenile Correctional Facilities

By Alarcon, Francisco "Frank" J. | Corrections Today, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Does Facility Size Really Matter? Myth versus Reality on the Impact of Size in Juvenile Correctional Facilities


Alarcon, Francisco "Frank" J., Corrections Today


Approximately two and a half years ago, the American Correctional Association Standards Committee, after considerable discussion and deliberation, revised the standards for juvenile training schools (otherwise known as juvenile residential and/or correctional facilities in many jurisdictions) to eliminate the requirement that facilities must be no larger than 150 beds. Originally proposed by Geno Natalucci-Persichetti, Ohio's long-time Department of Youth Services director, and wholeheartedly endorsed by me (a former juvenile correctional administrator in California and presently in Florida) when I was still a member of the Standards Committee, the change appeared to go unnoticed until August 2002, despite public notice and discussion prior to adoption. In any case, additional healthy dialogue and discussion has since ensued, and ACA President Charles Kehoe created a special task force, chaired by Ralph Kelly, former commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice, to revisit the issue. I recently had the pleasure of addressing the task force at the members' request and they, along with others in the field, encouraged me to share my thoughts in writing about the subject matter. I could think of no better forum for this dialogue than Corrections Today and would encourage others who may not agree with me to pursue similar venues in the future if they so desire.

The pre-existing standard of 150 beds or less was well-meaning. Adopted many years ago at a time when ACA membership was dominated by smaller states (some would argue this is still the case), which quite naturally operated small facilities, it was generally accepted as common practice that small was better. The argument went something like this: Small facilities are easier to manage, provide a less intimidating environment for treatment and allow staff to get closer to youths. In later years, a spin-off argument in support suggested that small facilities were easier to site and blend into neighborhoods and communities, thus allowing them to be more effective as integrated programs. But what do research and the literature tell us about these arguments? Not much.

Literature Review

At best, the information is inclusive and at worst, it argues against the "small is better" mantra. One would have to go back to 1980 for the last time a research project on size of juvenile facilities was undertaken using an experimental or quasi-experimental research design. Institutional Violence Reduction Project: The Impact of Changes in Living Unit Size and Staffing was published in January 1980 by the California Youth Authority and funded by a research grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Criminal Justice Planning. Even in this case, the 30-month study was done on living unit size, not facility size. The purpose was to "evaluate the relative effects of changes in living unit size in relation to staffing" using two open dormitory-style units, one that housed 47 youths and the other with 38 youths, with a staff-to-youth ratio of 1-to-10 in each unit. Halfway through the study, these conditions were reversed by changing the number of youths and staff in each unit, accordingly. The project results indicated that reduced living unit size "is conducive to less negative and violent behavior among wards, fewer escapes, fewer time adds and more time cuts, and an improvement in ward-staff relationships." Smaller living units (although neither 38 nor 47 would be considered small in most states) seem to make a difference in producing fewer disciplinary incidents, less staff sick leave and an improvement in social climate, the study concluded.

The other evidence often cited by pro-small juvenile facilities supporters is to suggest that class-size initiatives in education would indicate that small is better. As a father myself, I would like to believe that too. It would seem quite reasonable to think smaller classes and schools would be better and thus, draw such a connection to juvenile justice. …

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