State, local police at odds on juvenile detention

By Sharna Johnson: Freedm New Mexico

Local police and the state agency that oversees troubled youths are at odds on how to handle juvenile criminal suspects.

Clovis Police Capt. Patrick Whitney said the Curry County Juvenile Detention Center is too small and state criteria governing detention of youth is too stringent.

He said local police have to fight the system to have a juvenile held, and often have to catch and release.

Ted Lovato, deputy director of family and youth services for the Children, Youth and Families Department, said detaining youth doesn’t address underlying problems but instead hardens them, indoctrinating them into the justice system. He also said police are too quick to detain offenders.

CYFD oversees the juvenile delinquency system.

The rift causes frustration for officers who believe it impedes them.

“Really what they are asking of us is not to do our job anymore. It’s getting out of hand and this all goes back to the state. It’s all happening up in Santa Fe,” Whitney said.

Whitney said juveniles are often turned away because of the state’s point system, which evaluates youth and only allows detention when the youths pose a threat to themselves or the community.

“We have to start calling chiefs, juvenile probation officers, judges and county managers (for an override),” Whitney said. “We have had that where we had to basically fight to get them in there. And then there are those that have committed felonies that they won’t take, and we just have to release them. It really, really puts police officers in a bad situation.”

Lovato said he understands the situation can be frustrating for police, but detention is not always the answer.

“I think one of the biggest concerns that (police) may have is not being able to detain every youth that they arrest, (but) one of the things we are charged with under statute is to determine who to detain and who not to detain, and we don’t take that lightly,” he said.

“We don’t disagree that youth that pose a risk need to be detained. What we oppose is putting a widespread net on any kid for any reason … What we try to do in lieu of detention is bring the child and family into our office (and find out what’s causing the problems). Detention within itself won’t curb the behavior, there’s underlying factors in the behavior.”

Lovato said in the past, Curry County’s facility was rated for 16 beds but was dropped to 10 a couple of years ago because of low staffing levels. After a new inspection in late November, CYFD authorized two more six-hour maximum holding slots.

Portales Police Capt. Lonnie Berry said Portales does not have a juvenile facility and when detention is authorized, they transport juveniles as far as Lovington because of congestion at the Clovis facility.

“It seems to me the juvenile justice system is probably as close to needing an overhaul as it’s been in a long time… some accountability has to be there,” Berry said. “(The juvenile) may not be a danger to himself or the community, but he’s really hurting the community in a lot of ways. An adult wouldn’t get by with it.”

The rating system also doesn’t take into account seasoned juvenile offenders, Whitney said. He said officers often hear from crime victims who see the youth who burglarized their home or damaged their property back out in the community immediately after the incident, Whitney said.

“We don’t answer to CYFD, we answer to the public,” Whitney said. “We still have to make the arrest, we’re going to make the arrest. How they choose to deal with it from that point is up to them.”

Children must be viewed and treated differently than adults when it comes to policing, according to Lisa Bond-Maupin, a criminologist and chairwoman of the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission.

“The juvenile justice system is qualitatively different from the adult because we still understand that youth are in need of guidance, care, and are dependent upon us economically and legally. We have a responsibility to not only respond to their illegal behavior — but to do everything we can to understand it as a symptom of many other things going on in a child’s life,” she said in an e-mail.

“We also have a legal and social responsibility to use the least restrictive, least harsh means of assisting and responding to youth in trouble with the police. Detention should be a last resort and a lack of alternatives to detention or frustration with the system are not justifiable reasons to detain.”

Lovato said a unique trend state juvenile officials see in Clovis is the “quick” arrest and detention of youth for low-level offenses. He said studies show attempting to scare juveniles through incarceration doesn’t work. Instead, what those youth and their families need are resources to address the issues precipitating the behavior.

Police are accustomed to a one-stop adult system that ends at the jail, and their training may not fully help them understand how to deal with juveniles, Bond-Maupin said. Officers often have the same expectations when it comes to dealing with youth that they have for adults, she said, and believe there should be a single place, or jail, to take them when they’re arrested.

“Some also feel that the immediate and swift consequence of jail is appropriate for all youth. I think some officers feel that it undermines their authority not to be able jail a youth,” she said.“Sometimes, neither detention or home are good choices.”

Assessment centers designed to evaluate and find resources for youth that don’t qualify for detention have been implemented in some communities, she said, to bridge the gap.

In October, Clovis contracted with a local youth facility to create an assessment center, but Whitney calls it a Band-Aid for a much larger issue.

Law enforcement officers agree not every youth arrested needs to be sent to a detention center, but there are crimes that fall between shoplifting and violent assaults where they believe detention is appropriate.

“I definitely would not say that every kiddo we get needs to go to detention. (In some cases) that would be worse for them, (but) I think accountability is a key issue here,” Berry said.

Berry recalled a juvenile who caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage in the community but police weren’t allowed to detain him. Almost immediately after he was released, he caused more damage.

“Juveniles know typically that they’re much less likely to go to jail. At some point in time there’s got to be a deterrent,” he said.