FARMINGTON – County-run juvenile detention centers are facing strained resources and closures, leaving detained youth to travel across county lines to the few remaining centers, according to a presentation by the San Juan County Juvenile Detention Center.
Many of the county facilities face budget cuts and ultimately closure as fewer youth statewide are being committed to juvenile detention centers, according to state officials.
“It’s a good problem to have because we’re detaining less youth,” said Nick Costales, deputy director of field services for New Mexico’s Juvenile Justice Services. According to Costales, it’s part of a national trend for fewer youth to enter the juvenile justice system as communities look toward alternative options, including GPS tracking and placement with other family members or community organizations.
While it is a positive development, the closure of youth centers has put a strain on facilities still in operation, not to mention county law enforcement agencies and youths themselves, according to Traci Neff, juvenile services administrator with San Juan County, which currently holds 5 committed youth and 20 pre-trial youth at its 46-bed facility.
Currently, eight out of 33 New Mexico counties operate a youth detention center. The two largest, in Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties, operate 78- and 64-bed facilities, respectively. The state operates detention centers for youth who have been sentenced after a court conviction, but counties are also responsible for detaining youth who are awaiting trial, according to Tamera Marcantel, deputy director of facility services for the state’s Juvenile Justice Services. But San Juan County Juvenile Services is the only county facility in the state that can hold pre- and post-sentenced youth, Marcantel said last week during a state legislative meeting.
In her presentation to the legislative committee, Neff provided the example of a youth from Cibola County who was detained at the San Juan County Juvenile Detention Center for 220 days. During that time, the youth was transported five times for court hearings back to Cibola County, which is 139 miles from San Juan County. The average transport day took roughly eight hours, but the longest day lasted 13 hours.
Another youth from McKinley County, where a detention center closed in 2017, spent an average of 10 hours in transit for five days of court appearances during a 57-day stay at the San Juan County center. The transport time includes when the youth is picked up from the facility, travels to the other county to attend a hearing and is returned back to the facility. Often, if hearings run long or are delayed, transport times can reach up to 16 hours, which is the case of the youth from McKinley County, roughly 117 miles from San Juan County.
That puts a strain on youth, who might struggle to stay connected to family and invested in school work. It’s also stressful on law enforcement, according to Neff. Officers from Grant County spent over 75 hours transporting six juveniles to and from the San Juan County detention center. For the 87 days the youths spent in custody, it cost the county a total of $7,050 in wages and overtime for the officers, whose time spent driving to and from San Juan County is not included in the average transport time.
In addition to possibly implementing the use of video conferencing, in which youth can appear for court hearings via video-conferencing, Neff would like to see the costs of detention shared with all cities, counties and state stakeholders to offset the financial strain.
As certain detention centers close, “It’s important to re-invest those dollars back into their community,” Costales said. State and county officials said they would like to see alternative options developed for youth who need more support but are not being detained in a facility. Perhaps, Neff suggested, existing facilities that are shutting down could be repurposed to focus on reintegration.
While the San Juan County juvenile facility has no plans to close, Neff said it’s important for the community to know “the impact it has when juveniles are being detained outside of their county, especially to the youth and their families.”