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Juvenile detention center to close in December

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County Commissioners talk Thursday about the thoughts that went into their decision to close the juvenile detention center in late December. From left are T. Calder Ezzell, Jeff Bilberry and Commission Chair Will Cavin. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Commissioners decide ‘fiscal responsibility’ requires action

The local juvenile detention center will close in about a month, as decided by a vote of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners.

The five commissioners unanimously decided Thursday to close the Chaves County Juvenile Detention Center on Dec. 29 by midnight.

Juveniles now held at the center will be transferred to other centers, most likely the one in Curry County but also possibly the one in Lea County, said Chaves County Manager Stanton Riggs.

County officials signed an agreement on Nov. 5 with Curry County to allow for the transfer of youth offenders, and it previously had made a similar deal with Lea County.

According to commissioners and Riggs, the decision is meant to save the county the $1.08 million a year in expenditures for a facility that serves only three county youth a day on average, with about an equal number of detainees from other counties.

Given that the county will have to pay other facilities about $200 a day to house Chaves County youth, the county still will have about $219,000 in expenses related to juvenile detentions.

Riggs and Clay Corn, Chaves County Detention Center administrator, said the dwindling population numbers reflect the implementation of a risk-assessment procedure statewide that results in very few youth being detained, even temporarily. Unless accused of violent crimes, they are typically released to the custody of adults, ordered to have electronic monitoring or sent to rehabilitation or treatment centers.

As an example, Clay Corn and Commissioner Robert Corn mentioned the case of a young man accused of shooting his stepfather, who Clay Corn said he thought had been released from detention pending trial. That decision is outside the purview of the county, made by either a judge or the Juvenile Justice Office.

The change in law and attitudes over the past five years has meant that numerous juvenile prisons have closed during the past few years, Riggs said.

Many county managers and detention center administrators are proposing regional juvenile centers established by the state, he said.

Commissioner Dara Dana said she thinks juvenile detention probably will be addressed during the 2020 legislative session, as the situation has been discussed by the Legislative Finance Committee.

Commissioner Corn said the potential of a changing situation is why the facility itself will remain as it is, so it can reopen quickly if necessary.

“We are not leading the charge on this thing,” Corn said. “We are just kind of with the pack, given what Mr. Riggs has just given us about facilities closing. Until it is addressed legislatively in some manner — either by changing the Children’s Code or going with regional centers — this is what we see.”

No one spoke against the decision during Thursday’s meeting, but a Nov. 12 workshop to consider the facility’s future brought out quite a few people who urged the commissioners to keep the center open.

Those people included Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh, Roswell Police Chief Phil Smith, 5th Judicial District Chief Deputy District Attorney Matthew Stone, Chaves County Public Defender Joanne Angel and a couple of people who volunteer with youth and the detention center.

“I am asking you — as strongly as I possibly can — not to close this facility, not to turn your back on this community,” Kintigh 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.”

He and others worried that Roswell Police Department officers will be required to do overtime — without reimbursement from the county — to transport or hold youth. County officials said that they have made transportation and holding arrangements to ensure that won’t happen.

Others who opposed closure worried that youth will not fare as well if separated from the support systems in the county, including their family and friends. Stone said that juvenile code requires the state to do what is in the best interest of the child, and he thought that meant keeping them as close to their home county as possible, not only for services and supportive people, but for access to lawyers, judges and courts.

Clay Corn said that the detainees sent to other counties will receive similar educational, mental health and behavioral health services as they receive in Chaves County and that prevention and intervention programs also will remain in this county to help at-risk youth.

“There are plenty of programs for juveniles that we have here in Chaves County that if a family wants help, a child needs help, there are several agencies that have been very instrumental in prevention,” he said.

He also said that the juvenile center has been certified by the CYFD for about 30 years, so that reopening would not be difficult. All but two of the current juvenile center staff have chosen to transfer to the Chaves County Adult Detention Center, where they are “desperately” needed, he said.

Commissioner T. Calder Ezzell said he originally thought he would move to table the matter until after the legislative session to see if actions were taken on the issue, but he said he decided that it is commissioners’ responsibility to protect taxpayers’ resources.

“One thing that struck me from last Tuesday’s workshop meeting was that there were a lot of people speaking with very good reason for keeping juvenile detention open, and yet I was kind of surprised that there was no one speaking for its closure on behalf of taxpayers. … It struck me that protecting the taxpayers’ money is our job, not theirs.”

He also said that he thinks closing the center “sends more of a message to the Legislature than just a threat does.”

As other commissioners mentioned, he reiterated that he felt reassured by knowing that most county personnel will transfer to the adult center, that the juvenile facility can be reopened and that detainees still will have access to many programs and services.

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