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County considers juvenile detention center’s fate

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Margie Miller, chief of the southeast division of the Juvenile Probation Office of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, talks Tuesday with the Chaves County Board of Commissioners about the process involving juvenile arrests and detentions. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Some local leaders argue against closure

Saying that the issue is complicated and the matter weighs on them, the Chaves County Board of Commissioners discussed during a Tuesday workshop the possibility of closing its downtown juvenile detention center to save hundreds of thousands a year, but it was a step that the Roswell mayor, Roswell police chief, a district court prosecutor and a public defender urged them not to take.

The commissioners held the meeting to present county information and listen to the public. They plan to decide about closure during a meeting later this month.

While part of the discussion focused on the financials and the practicalities of handling inmates younger than 18, another part dealt with the philosophical issue on how to punish criminals when offenders are young — whether state laws need to change to institute tougher penalties or whether New Mexico benefits from the more reform-oriented approach adopted in the state in 2003 that results in detention for only the most violent or serious criminal actions.

“I would like to thank everyone for their opinions and especially those who expressed an opinion opposed to closing the facility. I serve on the Finance Committee. I look at numbers,” said Commissioner T. Calder Ezzell. “When you look at numbers like that, it is a slam-dunk. Without your input today, this would be no decision at all.”

Most of the five commissioners stressed that they are obligated to be “good stewards” of taxpayers’ money, but also said they will consider a lot of different factors.

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According to information presented by County Manager Stanton Riggs, the cost of running the detention center since 2014 has been close to $1 million each fiscal year. For the current fiscal year of 2019-20, the cost is expected to be $1,008,742.

While costs are increasing and cannot be reduced much, given state mandates about required staffing, facilities and services, the detention population has been decreasing each year.

In fiscal year 2014-15 to 2015-16, the detention center averaged 11 Chaves County youth a day. In 2016-17 and 2017-2018, there were seven county youth a day. In 2018-2019, five local youth were held on average each day. So far this fiscal year, the average is three.

The detention center also houses about the same number of youth from other counties, and receives about $75,000 a year in reimbursement.

If the county instead pays Lea, Curry or some other county to house local youth, the cost is estimated at $219,000 to $511,000 a year, Riggs said. That means the county would reduce its expenditures by about $498,000 to $790,000 a year.

Riggs said the issue has been studied for five years, with increased scrutiny for the past six months. He also said the county would act deliberately if closure is chosen, taking 30 days or longer to make transitions and keeping the facility itself intact so that it could be reopened if needed.

In response to criticism that the Roswell Police Department might have to shoulder the time and costs involved in transporting juveniles to other counties or holding the juveniles themselves until arrangements were made elsewhere, Riggs said he could not give details but that up to three transportation teams had been identified and arrangements have been made about where juveniles would be held until the Juvenile Probation Office decides on how to handle the cases.

Part of the workshop involved questioning of Margie Miller, chief of the southeast division of the Juvenile Probation Office of the New Mexico Child, Youth and Family Department. That Probation Office — not Roswell Police or Chaves County Sheriff’s deputies — decide whether a juvenile will be detained and, under current risk assessment guidelines, most aren’t. Instead, most youth are released to family or guardians, given electronic monitors or sent to rehabilitation centers.

For example, Miller said that, in the month of October, there were 60 criminal citations for youth in Chaves County, while there were 70 in September. Yet the average daily inmate population for the county was three. She said typically only felony-three or felony-four crimes such as murder, vehicular homicide, criminal damage over $10,000 or armed robbery result in detention prior to a judge hearing the case.

Eight people spoke against closure, although they had different rationale. They included Roswell Police Chief Phil Smith; Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh; Matthew Stone, chief deputy district attorney of the 5th Judicial District Court; and Joanne Angel, Chaves County public defender.

Kintigh pointed out that five of seven Chaves County residents live in the city of Roswell so the matter concerned him greatly. He also said that New Mexico has the highest violent crime rate in the nation, more than twice the national average, and called the Children’s Code “incredibly weak.” He said what needs to be done is to change state laws.

“I am asking you — as strongly as I possibly can — not to close this facility, not to turn your back on this community,” he said. “All of us have to provide basic services. All the services cost money. That’s why we collect taxes. That’s why we do the best that we can. This one is critical for public safety.”

Others worried that, in spite of county remarks to the contrary, that transportation of juvenile inmates to other counties would fall on an “understaffed and overworked” Roswell police force or that holding them elsewhere would burden community members and police officers.

Another group of people, including detention center volunteers, educators and the public defender, said that care and concern for juveniles require that they remain in the community to ensure they receive the education, social services, family support and legal support they need.

Stone said that juvenile law differs from other criminal law and that prosecutors have an obligation to act in the best interest of the child, which Stone said he thinks means keeping them in their community where they can receive needed services. He added that detaining them in another county might hamper their access to courts, judges and lawyers.

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