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County to examine closing juvenile detention center

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Chaves County commissioners will be discussing at meetings this month whether to close the downtown juvenile detention center, transferring Chaves County youth to other facilities in the state. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Chaves County is considering whether to close its downtown juvenile detention center and send those youth to similar facilities in the state, with the county manager indicating the number of Chaves County juveniles sentenced to the center has decreased significantly in recent years.

Stanton Riggs said the low population numbers during the past five years raises the question of whether the $1 million annual cost for the local facility — adjacent to the Chaves County Courthouse on North Main Street — makes sense.

“As good stewards of the taxpayers’ money, we need to analyze whether this is a good use of (their) money,” he said.

Calling the county commission a strong “law and order” group, he also said the rumors he has heard about the county letting juvenile inmates go free is incorrect.

“There is some misunderstanding,” he said. “We are not talking about letting any juvenile out of jail. We don’t have that authority. Neither does the sheriff. Neither do the police.”

He explained that determinations about juvenile detention are governed by the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department and its Juvenile Probation Office, not local authorities.

A financial analysis, as well as other information related to the issue, are due to be discussed during a workshop Nov. 12 at the Chaves County Administrative Center, 1 St. Mary’s Place. The meeting starts with election canvassing at 2 p.m.

A vote could occur during the Nov. 21 Chaves County Board of Commissioners meeting, but the detention center would not close for at least 30 days following the commissioners’ decision.

On Friday, only two Chaves County youth were in the jail, Riggs said, and the average from November 2018 to October 2019 was three local youth a day.

He said that is in line with a multi-year trend that county staff and elected officials have been looking at regularly for six months and reviewing annually at budget time. He said the local detention center used to have an 11-person a day average, then seven, then five and now three.

While the detention center does house juveniles from elsewhere in the state, out-of-county juveniles numbered only four on Friday, with their population declining over the years, as well.

The county has the ability to charge $200 per inmate per day — potentially receiving $73,000 a year per inmate from nearby counties — but Riggs said the county actually receives only about $65,000 to $75,000 a year in reimbursements.

Meanwhile, costs for personnel, food, medical and behavioral health care, educational and vocational training, and other state-required services mandated for juveniles increase each year, he said.

The Roswell Independent School District also pays for a teacher at the center, which also receives some school lunch program funds.

Closure could save the county $400,000 to $700,000 a year, Riggs estimated.

He said the low juvenile prison population is part of a statewide trend that began many years ago with changes in attitudes and law on how to treat juvenile offenders.

“It isn’t that judges haven’t put people in jail. It is that some of these (cases) don’t rise to the level where they go to a judge,” he said. “We have a lot more first-offender programs in our state. We have a lot more alternative sentences and such that are being utilized; and, with that, we have seen a huge decrease in our population.”

According to the New Mexico Juvenile Probation Office’s website, the New Mexico Children’s Code went into effect in 2003 to reduce the number of youth in detention. As part of that code, a Risk Assessment Instruction and mental health assessments are used to determine if alternatives, such as electronic monitoring or rehabilitation centers, can be used instead of detention.

As a result of the changes, many counties in the state already have closed their juvenile detention centers, including Eddy, Otero and Lincoln counties in the eastern region of the state.

Riggs said leaders at a recent meeting of the New Mexico Counties predicted that alternatives to jail sentences for juveniles will continue to be preferred in coming years.

The decision on whether to close the facility resides solely with the county, he said, and if the commissioners vote for closure, qualified juvenile detention staff will be offered employment in the Chaves County adult detention center and the facility will remain as it is, at least for a while.

“The facility needs some additional electronic work if we keep it open, but if we decide not to keep it open, then we don’t want to go in there and gut it,” he said. “We want to watch it for a while and see what happens, to see if, in a couple of years, the trend changes or the idea changes.”

If juveniles were detained elsewhere, family members or friends could visit them when they were in Chaves County for court appearances, or make arrangements with the juvenile probation staff to see them.

He also said the county already has juvenile transportation abilities and contracts with other detention centers. He said it could build on those existing arrangements to house Chaves County juveniles at centers in Lea or Curry counties, should commissioners decide to close the local facility.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.