A team of top officials from all branches of state government will closely examine juvenile justice data this year in an effort to improve a system that has seen a steady decline in incarcerated youth but a steep rise in costs to detain them and increasing violence at detention centers.

New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Secretary Monique Jacobson and Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil announced Thursday in Albuquerque that they will lead a task force of District Court and tribal judges, lawmakers, top prosecutors, defense attorneys and others to review the juvenile justice system and recommend policy changes ahead of the 2018 legislative session.

The goal of the Juvenile Justice Improvement Initiative Taskforce, which will be aided by a division of the U.S. Justice Department, is to find ways to improve outcomes for the thousands of troubled young New Mexicans who end up in the system. In an interview Thursday, Jacobson said that means giving them the skills and support they need to succeed after they are released from lockup — or even before they are detained.

In a statement Thursday, Vigil said, “This comprehensive, data-driven review provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to … make sure we are using resources to make our system more effective and fair and better serve the needs of youth and families.”

The child welfare agency takes the lead in operating state juvenile facilities and monitoring those run by local governments. But juvenile justice involves a wide range of state and local government agencies.

“It’s important that we all come together so we’re not operating in silos,” Jacobson said.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is offering technical assistance to New Mexico and Nevada for their similar juvenile justice reform initiatives, according to a news release, and the nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center will help analyze data for the New Mexico team.

The full task force, with about two dozen members, will meet in August, Jacobson said. In the meantime, smaller groups will mine data and work on prioritizing policy and program reforms. Jacobson expects the group to present some legislative proposals by early fall in preparation for the 30-day session that begins in January 2018.

More than 9,000 children, teens and young adults up to age 21 entered the justice system in fiscal year 2016, according to a Children, Youth and Families Department report, a number that marks a 27 percent decline from fiscal year 2013. The average daily population of detained youth dropped to 194 in 2016 from 658 in 2000, the result of a combination of fewer young people entering the system and shorter terms of incarceration over the past 15 years, from an average of nearly 16 months to less than six months in the last fiscal year.

In recent years, however, the detention centers have seen rising numbers of assaults, both between incarcerated youth and between youth and staff members. Part of the reason for that, Jacobson said, is because the state has stopped using segregation as a disciplinary measure. “When we did that, we saw an increase incidents.”

Corrections officers and other staff are undergoing to training on how to de-escalate altercations without putting youth in isolation, she said.

The kids who end up in detention centers today also tend to be older and “more intense” than in the past, Jacobson said, struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues and other needs that require a heavier focus on rehabilitation.

Jacobson said costs to operate juvenile facilities have increased — to over $180 per individual in fiscal year 2015 from about $115 per person in 2008, according to a legislative report — as the state has shifted from what she called “warehousing” young offenders to offering rehabilitation.

The secretary sees the higher costs to lower the youth-to-staff ratio in detainment facilities, and to increase mental health services, educational opportunities and activities such as athletics and dance, as investments.

She also is pushing for more consistent probation policies and practices around the state and an increase in community-based services to support youth upon release.

The systemwide review will help determine which reforms are working well to reduce recidivism and which need improvement, she said.

Jacobson cited the state’s drug epidemic as a key factor behind youth incarceration — whether because of a teen’s own struggles with substance abuse or because of drug use in the family or community. “You simply cannot understate the role that drugs are playing,” she said.

When she asked one boy who returned to the state’s juvenile justice system why he had used drugs again, Jacobson said, he told her, “It’s just easier to say yes.” That stuck with her.

The state has to give kids the skills to say no and a sense of hope, she said. “We have to give them a brighter future so they know what they have to look forward if they say no instead of yes.”

Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or cmiller@sfnewmexican.com.

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