Two Theories - Part 3

When the county closed the Youth Development Program last year and sent accused youth to Farmington, what else did Santa Fe outsource?

Last March, amid pleas to stay home and not travel, Santa Fe County contacted its counterparts in San Juan with a request. Officials asked the Juvenile Services Center in Farmington to house Santa Fe youth taken into custody and awaiting trial.

A month later, the counties struck a deal and transported those in custody at the Youth Development Program to San Juan County’s youth jail. Since then, all children taken into custody on suspicion of committing crimes in Santa Fe have gone north.

Santa Fe County pitched the move to residents primarily as a way to save millions of dollars, which they say it has, but the cost of sending some of the city’s most vulnerable children off to another county doesn’t sit right with youth advocates.

>> READ MORE: Two Theories - Part 1

>> READ MORE: Two Theories - Part 2

“It bears asking the question,” says Matthew Cockman, a public defender who handles the majority of juvenile cases in San Juan County. “Is that reflective of perhaps a disregard for the kids and the commitment of the community to the wellbeing of the children?”

County officials say they have the kids’ best interest in mind.

“It was about providing a facility for these youths to go to that was more modern,” Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen tells SFR. “But also the cost was quite extreme for the small amount of juveniles that we had.”

Advocates and the county cited the out-of-date facilities, which were originally designed to hold adults, as the primary reason the jail on Airport Road was unsuitable for children.

The youth jail in Santa Fe was one of several around the state to shut down in recent years.

Since the northwesternmost New Mexico county agreed to house youth from Santa Fe, the Farmington facility has held 44 local juveniles—three more are incarcerated there now.

The San Juan youth jail only houses pre-adjudicated inmates, presumed innocent until their court date with a judge. Their stays range from days to over a year.

Among the population is Estevan Montoya, who is being held as he awaits trial in the killing of Santa Fe High School basketball star Fedonta “JB” White.

The pressures of Montoya’s move to Farmington have kept his family from having the kind of contact they want to have, says Dan Marlowe, Montoya’s criminal defense lawyer, “and it’s kept me from having physical contact with him.”

Though, this past year, physical contact and in-person visitations were limited due to COVID-19.

There have been 16 COVID-19 cases reported at the youth jail in Farmington—seven among staff and nine among inmates.

“We didn’t have any outbreaks,” Bowen Belt, juvenile services administrator of the San Juan center, tells SFR. “No staff or children were ever hospitalized.”

Despite the lack of physical contact, the separation of vulnerable youths from their community concerns Cockman.

“We can’t just send them away to another county and then expect that there’s not anything that’s going to come of it when they come back,” he tells SFR, pointing to potential future consequences such as recidivism and a return to criminal behavior.

Cockman says it’s harder to determine the cost of these issues on a community and therefore easier to ignore.

Belt and Cockman point to remote hearings as another consequence of shipping juveniles to a different county for holding. Some may be as far as 150 miles away from their attorneys during trials.

Now, all hearings—local or not—are virtual due to the pandemic. And those young people standing trial have adults in the room to answer questions.

In recent years the number of children in custody has decreased. In the San Juan center the average number of inmates per day dropped from 19 to 16 from 2019 to 2020. It dropped again in 2021, to an average of 12.

Cockman believes the population drop is due, in part, to the work of juvenile justice practitioners hoping to keep family units together and get children out of custody.

Citing the high-profile nature of Montoya’s case, Marlowe says his client is better off in a different county.

“I can tell you he’s safer up there than he would be in Santa Fe. Estevan is the kind of kid, I’d like to see him get out on bond, but I can see why the judge wouldn’t let him out—but I didn’t make a big deal out of it because he would not be safe if he were on the street here,” Marlowe says. “And neither would his grandmother or his mother, which is who he would be staying with, be safe.”

Cockman explains the current circumstances are less than ideal because the facility is not community-based, but as far as youth jails go, the public defender believes the Farmington center is as good as it gets in New Mexico.

“You should thank your lucky stars that’s where they’ve been sent,” he says.

The worn-out Santa Fe youth jail cost the county $2.4 million in fiscal year 2020 to run. Compare that with the $559,000 it cost to maintain the building in fiscal year 2021—when no children lived there and it was instead used to store files for the county.

Instead of footing that bill, the county now pays the San Juan facility $225 per bed day—the cost of housing an underage inmate for up to 24 hours. Factoring in the minimum number of contracted beds Santa Fe children could stay in, the capital county paid San Juan just over $250,000 in the first year.

Other counties have faced similar financial decisions over the last two decades. Of the 14 facilities that were in operation 16 years ago, only four remain in operation to serve the entire state: in San Juan, Bernalillo, Doña Ana and Lea counties.

“Ideally, every community has their own juvenile detention facility right?” Belt asks. “But, you know, how often are things ideal?”

>> READ MORE: Two Theories - Part 1

>> READ MORE: Two Theories - Part 2

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