EGG HARBOR CITY — The Harborfields Juvenile Detention Center, the site of a dramatic escape Wednesday, was once the place where most youthful offenders in Atlantic County ended up spending time.

But a change in direction more than a decade ago has greatly reduced the number of offenders to only those accused of more serious crimes, or who have a longer arrest record.

It also has brought young offenders in from other counties, to help share the cost of running the facility, said County Executive Dennis Levinson.

“The program has been extremely successful. It used to be kids did something wrong, they were automatically taken to Harborfields,” said Levinson. “That was juvenile justice. They were locked up and in many cases came out worse than when they went in.”

On Wednesday, only eight young people were housed there, four of whom escaped, said County Administrator Jerry DelRosso.

In 2004, the county joined the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, to reduce the number of young offenders sent to detention, Levinson said.

Unless they are deemed too dangerous, the program now oversees most of them in their own homes with the use of electronic bracelets or houses them in a youth shelter.

Harborfields, at Buffalo Avenue and Duerer Street in Egg Harbor City, has agreements with Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties to take a limited number of their youth offenders, a county spokeswoman said Wednesday.

“Of the four youths that escaped earlier today, two were from Atlantic, one from Salem and one from Cumberland,” Linda Gilmore said.

There are 27 beds at the facility, according to the county website. Of the eight young people there Wednesday, half were from Atlantic County, one was from Cumberland, one from Cape May and two from Salem County, DelRosso said.

Michael Huggins was charged with murder in the Oct. 7, 2016, killing of Davonte Lee in Bridgeton, according to Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae. He was from Cumberland County and remained at-large late Wednesday.

Webb-McRae warned he should be considered dangerous. Anyone who spotted him was urged to call 911 and not try to approach him.

The last time there was an escape from Harborfields was in 2012, when five young offenders got away for a brief time. They were recaptured in Egg Harbor City.

Harborfields is owned by Atlantic County but run by the state Juvenile Justice Commission. Each of the sending counties must submit a plan for approval to the commission, and the shared-services agreements must be approved by the Atlantic County freeholder board, Gilmore said.

DelRosso said Wednesday the per diem rate for other counties is $200 per person per day.

Levinson said the number of Atlantic County youths incarcerated at Harborfields each year went from about 500 before the program to fewer than 160 today. There were about 30 Atlantic County kids a day there, compared with six to eight today, he said.

“People are asking me, ‘What are we taking kids from Cape May and Cumberland for?’ That’s why the taxes in Atlantic County are lower. We are frugal. We try to do the best we can with sharing of services,” said Levinson.

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Contact: 609-272-7219 Twitter @MichelleBPost

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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