Regional youth detention facilities considered as they shutter across New Mexico

Two teen inmates sit Aug. 1 at Santa Fe’s youth detention center. New Mexico has about half the number of juvenile detention facilities it had five years ago. Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo

The chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee and New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil are calling for state-financed regional juvenile detention facilities as more youth jails around the state close and cash-strapped counties are left to cover the cost.

Vigil submitted a statement to the committee Tuesday recommending that counties, cities and the state share the costs of running youth jails. She also recommended using largely empty juvenile detention centers for career and technical training and regionalizing facilities — something state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, head of the Health and Human Services Committee, said he also supports.

“What it means for the kids that are detained — their families can’t visit them. They can’t access education as readily,” said Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. “They are transported great distances multiple times for the same case being heard by a juvenile judge. They brought that to our attention, and we’re trying to figure out what to do about it.

“Ultimately it just seems like this is a state responsibility and that we ought to take it over,” he said. “That would free the counties up of some of the burden, and it would make sure that the kids are dealt with more equitably all over the state.”

The idea — which has not been turned into a bill — comes as the head of San Juan County’s juvenile detention center and an attorney with a New Mexico county association told lawmakers Tuesday that the pending closure of at least two juvenile facilities would slap other counties with more costs unless lawmakers find a fix.

That includes the price of housing more people and higher expenses associated with transporting them longer distances to attend court hearings in counties where there are no longer juvenile detention facilities. The eight counties that still have such centers paid for 89 percent of the $18.5 million it cost to incarcerate 1,459 juvenile offenders in fiscal year 2019.

During Tuesday’s panel hearing, Grace Philips, an attorney with the New Mexico Counties,and San Juan County Juvenile Services administrator Traci Neff outlined the problems that would ensue if Curry County closes its juvenile detention facility. Chaves County already has said it will close its center by Dec. 1, Philips said.

“Luna County is also closing, they think, by the end of the year,” while others are “contemplating closure,” Philips added.

Five juvenile centers — in Eddy, Quay, McKinley, Los Alamos and Taos counties — have closed in the past four years. If three more close, that would leave only five detention centers to serve 33 counties statewide.

As fewer kids end up in cells, counties are left with the cost of keeping up largely empty facilities, leading many to shut them down. New Mexico has about half the number of juvenile detention facilities it had five years ago.

The remaining juvenile jails, which have turned into de facto regional facilities funded by the counties in which they’re located, are scattered around a state that’s the nation’s fifth largest by area, often forcing law enforcement and the families of kids who are locked up to make long journeys.

Total bookings at the Santa Fe County juvenile detention center — known as the Youth Development Program — fell nearly 40 percent during a four-year period ending in 2018. It reflects a nationwide trend of declining juvenile incarceration rates amid an ongoing push for alternatives to locking youth behind bars.

The issue could go unresolved for at least another year unless lawmakers come up with and approve a plan by the end of the 30-day legislative session in January. The Governor’s Office has not yet said whether it will be on a list of legislative priorities.

Curry County, which has a general fund operating budget of about $15.8 million, spent close to $850,000 to keep its juvenile jail open last year. The operating costs were about $50,000 over budget. Youth from other counties are housed there at about $200 a day.

McKinley County had spent $1.1 million to operate a 35-bed juvenile jail in 2017, according to the county’s attorney, Doug Decker. Taos County closed its youth jail more than a year ago and now sends people to the Santa Fe juvenile center.

“This is a big impact, and it’s only going to get worse as more facilities shut down,” Neff said.

Staff writer Daniel J. Chacón contributed to this report

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