Detention School: An Incarceration Alternative

In 1992, the people in Douglas County, Kan., began construction of a regional juvenile detention facility, intending to keep their kids close to home. Prior to that time, juveniles were transported to an adjacent county for detention, requiring officials and family to make a 50-mile roundtrip for each visit.


The new facility was completed in 1993 and only solved the problem temporarily. Soon bed space became sparse and the facility frequently ran at capacity, once again requiring the transportation of juveniles. Douglas County again sought a way to keep their youthful offenders within the community-while also working on a way to reduce the growing juvenile population.

The Big Idea

The solution to the problem was the creation of a detention school — a facility that offers enough of a deterrent that youth do not want to return, while at the same time allowing them to avoid detention.

A youthful offender can be ordered into the detention school program, where they are bused to the facility every morning for classes-the bus system helps ensure attendance-and change into an orange detention uniform. Because they are in legal custody, any misbehavior lands them in a jail cell in the adjacent detention center. This hardened cell environment reinforces to the youth the seriousness of their behavior. At the end of the class day, the juveniles are processed out and bused back to their homes.

The detention center does not bear the full burden of costs, as the program receives a grant from the State of Kansas Juvenile Justice Administration (JJA), which covers much of the costs required for the project. The local school district, which provides all the teachers and school supplies, benefits by having juvenile offenders who might otherwise create behavior problems removed from the general student population. The offenders benefit from continuing to receive their education, albeit in a highly supervised environment.

The county has the primary responsibility for providing the building space. Because of reduced security costs, the detention school is far more economical than adding bed space to the juvenile facility; with the JJA participating in staff costs, operating costs are substantially less than increased cell space. And, by reducing the number of repeat offenders, the county’s costs also are reduced by not having to process as many youths. The JJA reaps the benefits by having fewer youth remanded to their custody for larger offenses.

The Building Solution

The county hired Treanor Architects to design the facility, which is attached to the detention center. The architects planned the facility expansion to include two classrooms with a large dayroom space adjacent to each. Classes are kept small-12 students each-to allow for personalized attention. The dayroom has large windows looking into the classrooms so detention officers can monitor classes from outside the room, which is the least intrusive method of observation. They also can move freely throughout the school and detention center, which are joined at the dayroom, and allow them to easily transfer juveniles to cells as necessary.

Because the school occurs within the secure environment, the perimeter doors are detention type. All other aspects of the building however, are constructed as a school. This simple building solution allows for a low-cost answer to overcrowding in juvenile detention facilities.

Example to Other Communities

The program has allowed the county to reduce detention numbers and postponed the construction of additional cells. Recidivism rates among juveniles also have dropped, indicating that keeping youths in school settings reduces the likelihood of repeat offences. Most importantly for this client is the ability to keep the youth in the community.

With communities often fighting growth issues in juvenile detention, and architects and planners too often suggesting additional space as the solution, creative ideas such as the detention school are necessary in order to better address the issues.

Other communities can apply the solutions learned in Douglas County, where they uncovered the solution to overcrowding while keeping juveniles in school and in the community: they constructed a facility that costs less than detention cells and, by distributing costs, allowed a greater investment in the program and facility success.

Dan Rowe, a principal at Treanor Architects in Topeka, Kansas, specializing in justice facilities. He can be reached at