If you attended a public school anywhere in the United States, and if you've also seen the inside of a jail, you may have noticed similarities: The cinder block walls, the harsh fluorescent lighting overhead, an air conditioner with the temperature set uncomfortably low and the vaguely bread-like smells of taxpayer-purchased cafeteria food.

At the Santa Fe County Youth Development Program on Airport Road—euphemistically rebranded by the private prison company that briefly operated it from 1998 to 2003, after it transitioned from a joint adult jail to a juvenile-only detention center—the connection between school and jail is more on the nose.

The county’s juvenile detention center on Airport Road got a new name in the late 1990s.
The county’s juvenile detention center on Airport Road got a new name in the late 1990s. | Aaron Cantú

During the week, the children incarcerated here attend classes for a few hours a day led by teachers employed by Santa Fe Public Schools. Their stays in lockup are usually less than 30 days, and often far shorter; too little time for courses to count for credit. It can happen, though, if they stay a while.

But they're not supposed to be here that long, because the Santa Fe facility typically holds teens only during pre-adjudication—before they see a judge. They might end up here for just a few hours after catching charges such as shoplifting, drug possession or damaging property, if an evaluator from the Children, Youth and Families Department-administered probation and parole office decides they're not a risk to the community.

Other times, they may be held for days or weeks until going before Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer in the District Court, who could place them on supervised release. It's more rare to be held longer than that, but it happens.

In other words, the Santa Fe County juvenile detention facility is a holding center. If a child's crimes are severe enough to merit incarceration after they're adjudicated (basically the youth equivalent of "convicted"), they'll likely be sent to the Youth Diagnostic & Development Center jail in Albuquerque for about nine months, followed by a short stint at a residential treatment facility meant to re-integrate them into society.

That's happening far less than it used to, and the county's facility, once crammed with young prisoners, has seen a steady decline in its average population year after year.

Even though it has a capacity to hold 63 juveniles, staff at the youth jail say they have not seen more than 27 at a time in a decade. Sometimes, there are fewer than 10. Kids are brought in from 16 other jurisdictions in the state, but even then, it's never even halfway full.

The closing of juvenile jails in New Mexico and the dwindling numbers of kids at the Santa Fe County center reveal a larger trend: Youth incarceration in the state is falling, consistently and quickly, a result of reforms that reflect broader national trends. Those reforms, people who work in youth services say, have directly led to falling crime rates among people under 18.

This shift presents a question for overseers of a facility built amid the prison boom of the late 20th century: Will the Santa Fe County youth detention center grow more important as other counties shutter theirs, or less, as the US appears to progress past the era of mass incarceration for young people?

The answer depends on the funding available for alternatives, which can change with the political winds, and whether incarcerating kids is something society wants to keep doing.

Tommy Rodriguez has witnessed a massive sea change in his 25 years working at CYFD. The state agency is best known for child welfare social services, but it's also the body that oversees whether youth are initially incarcerated after being apprehended by police.

For a long time, when it came to helping young people stay out of the system, "we weren't being successful," says Rodriguez, now the regional administrator for Juvenile Justice Services, overseeing probation and parole officers in Northern New Mexico.

Set to retire in a few months, Rodriguez started as a juvenile probation officer in 1994. That was the same year President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law. It freed up billions of dollars for the construction of new federal prisons and for local departments to hire new police officers, and gave momentum to the broader tough-on-crime movement.

Among young people, the "use of institutional confinement for even minor offenses was growing" in states across the country, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. In the media, some youth, especially black teenagers, were characterized as "superpredators," a term invented by a Princeton professor to describe a mythical "new breed" of criminal with "absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future." Hillary Clinton infamously deployed the term while campaigning for her husband in 1996.

Back then, probation offices in New Mexico, like other states, dealt with kids harshly on a wide scale.

"When I started, [probation officers] had caseloads of 40 to 45 kids," he says. "Facilities were jam-packed, and detention centers were overflowing." The kids they monitored were saddled with up to 45 conditions of probation, and violating even one could lead back to juvie.

In the late 1990s, the private prison company that operated the Santa Fe youth detention center on contract, Cornell Companies (later acquired by GEO Group), pushed the county to expand the number of beds from 40 to 115. That never happened, and the county started managing operations on its own in 2004.

It was around that time that the state's Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, whose members are appointed by the governor, started working with the Annie E Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDA). The foundation collects best practices and data, and offers training to local jurisdictions for how to divert young people away from jail by connecting them with local social service programs.

With its population of locked-up youth bursting at the seams, officials in Bernalillo County began working with the foundation 16 years ago. Soon after, the county saw a decline in both juvenile prisoner population and youth crime, according to Grace Philips, general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties.

"After applying the JDA initiative, the population at their detention facility went way down, and criminal conduct by youth declined at the same rate," Philips tells SFR. "You saw improvement in public safety at the same time less youth are locked up."

It was more than a correlational relationship, says Rodriguez. It turns out that when you approach teenagers from a place of caring, he says, they're more likely to engage, and less likely to get in serious trouble. And, case loads for juvenile parole officers are down to an average of 15.

After 2002, he says, "We hired community behavioral health clinicians [and] masters-level social workers," he says. "We now go over the backgrounds of kids, conduct triage where we talk about their lives from birth to present day, discuss what the kid had been through and experienced, why they aren't doing well in school, why there may be dysfunction in the family." From there, probation officers are supposed to slot them into services that fit their needs.

The number of annual referrals made by New Mexico law enforcement to juvenile probationary officers—which police are supposed to transmit every time they arrest someone under 18—fell steadily from 15,452 to 11,419 between fiscal years 2011 and 2017.

The statewide trend cuts across gender, age, type of crime and race and ethnicity, according to numbers from CYFD. And it reflects locally in Santa Fe County.

Between fiscal years 2014 and 2017, the number of alleged crimes committed by people primarily between the ages of 12 and 17 dropped, from 1,141 to 810. Use or possession of drug paraphernalia is the offense for which teens got pinched most frequently, followed by possession of marijuana and household battery.

The county's report from CYFD only includes the top 13 offenses committed by youth. More serious crimes such as murder, rape or violent shootings happen infrequently enough that they are not listed on the report.

The contrast between these positive trends and mainstream news coverage of teenage delinquency is a constant frustration for Richard DeMella, the Santa Fe city planner for youth and family services. A former NYPD cop with a thick Brooklyn accent, DeMella now oversees three city programs that give youth in the system extra support in school and subject them to intensive monitoring. In recent years, the city has partnered with Communities in Schools and YouthWorks.

Richard DeMella says state funding for youth programs has taken a dive, and he’d like to see it rebound.
Richard DeMella says state funding for youth programs has taken a dive, and he’d like to see it rebound. | Anson Stevens-Bollen

"Juvenile crime has been declining as a whole in this state over the past eight years, but you would never hear that," DeMella contends, because the media focuses on sensational and rare stories of youth violence. "All it takes is one incident to blow everything up."

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported in July that Santa Fe police suspected several disparate instances of violence this year to be gang-involved, including a shootout between two cars in the Santa Fe Place mall parking lot this summer.

SFPD Detective Casey Salazar tells SFR the police believe at least some of the youth involved in that shootout were associated with an Española-based group called OTR, or On The Real.

Salazar says this suspicion is based in part on a conversation with one youth and police review of social media postings. He could not recall whether the interviewed youth was involved in the shooting.

Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer later dismissed charges for several teens arrested in the mall shooting because prosecutors hadn't built their cases in a timely manner, and at least one teen was at the juvenile center for 52 days.

"When a youth is detained, the juvenile probation office will tell me if they have gang affiliation," Sommer explains to SFR over the phone. "But that's an allegation. It is not demonstrated."

Criminal Intelligence Officer Christopher Abbo tells SFR that SFPD has observed "a lot of traveling between Albuquerque and Santa Fe" of loosely affiliated peer groups allegedly involved in crime. The observation is disputed by Albino Garcia, the executive director of La Plazita Institute, a reporting center for adjudicated youth in the South Valley.

"I don't want to punk out Santa Fe, but I really don't know of any connections with Santa Fe and Albuquerque gang youth stuff," Garcia says.

DeMella, the city family and youth planner, thinks attention to high-profile but rare instances of organized youth crime affect public support for alternatives to detention, which can in turn affect funding for his programming.

DeMella says state funding for programs he oversees took a sharp dive two years ago, to $130,000 annually from about $205,000 in 2015. But just as important for DeMella as funding is the availability of social services where kids can plug in.

"My thing is, before we ask for money, let's make sure we have services in place for people," he says.

Inside the Santa Fe County youth lockup, colorful murals painted by teens who have passed through here adorn an otherwise bleak cinder block hallway leading toward the six housing pods.

The pods, split between two main units, each hold about a dozen single-person cells on two floors, and have tables with seats attached to the floor in their common areas.

In one pod, worn-looking board games sit on a table. Youth who are here for longer periods of time can earn privileges like watching television for good behavior.

The youth lockup has a few touches of childhood such as board games and classrooms, but it’s got a distinctive jail feeling.
The youth lockup has a few touches of childhood such as board games and classrooms, but it’s got a distinctive jail feeling. | Anson Stevens-Bollen | Aaron Cantú

All of them are strip-searched each time they return to the facility from court or receiving visitors.

Pablo Sedillo, the county's public safety department director, maintains that staff and volunteers at the jail nurture creativity out of the youth, citing one teen who recently won a Zozobra-drawing contest held by the city and the Chamber of Commerce.

Hidden talents, he says, "can unfortunately surface when they're in a detention setting, because there are a lot of staff, mentors," and volunteers.

Melodie Montoya, the senior shift supervisor at the detention center, says it offers 17 different programs for teens, including church services, poetry workshops, painting and substance abuse group therapy.

Youth correctional officer Melodie Montoya says the center offers 17 programs for teens including church services, painting workshops and group therapy.
Youth correctional officer Melodie Montoya says the center offers 17 programs for teens including church services, painting workshops and group therapy. | Aaron Cantú

This past summer, string musicians came and gave a performance, and a father-son pair from Cochiti Pueblo held workshops on drum-making.

Adam, an 18-year-old who spoke to SFR using a pseudonym, says that he cycled in and out of the Santa Fe juvenile facility about a dozen times since he was 14.

Being incarcerated as a teen "changes your mind," Adam tells SFR. "Your mindset. You stop caring. You're like, 'Fuck it, I'm already in the system,' and you stop caring."

Immediately before his 18th birthday, Adam went on the run, skipping his probation appointments after failing a urine drug test once again. He had failed enough of them to have spent months at a time at the Santa Fe youth jail, and was facing a year at Albuquerque's Youth Diagnostic & Development Center for his latest transgression. Eventually, he served about two weeks in the adult jail after turning 18.

Adam is the type of kid whom CYFD would point to as most in need of intensive monitoring: His first offense was auto burglary, followed by threatening a security guard, and then larceny.

The fact that his probation violations were mostly for failed drug tests is a reminder that Santa Fe has no inpatient substance abuse treatment program for juveniles, DeMella says.

"Maybe he belongs in a residential treatment center, but there aren't any here, so they stick him in the jail," DeMella says.

All incarcerated youth at the facility receive an hour of recreation daily, which may include time at a half-court with a single basketball hoop. The court is connected to a small library where a volunteer librarian visits twice a week. The books are donated and include novels, but also selections such as a Mickey Mouse picture book not meant for most teens.

Three boys file into the library wearing brown jumpsuits, the standard uniform here. Had they chosen not to go to the library, their only other choice was to remain in the housing pod.

In 2015 county commissioners considered closing the facility because of its consistently low usage and high cost. The juvenile jail then made up a tenth of the county's total corrections budget, and still does. On July 1, the county approved an operating budget that earmarked $2.2 million for the facility, with $1.4 million going to staff salary and benefits.

A task force formed in 2015 recommended that the county tear down the old building and build a newer, more modern one that could serve as a regional youth detention center. County Commissioner Anna Hansen says the cost of the plan was too high to consider, but that the closure of the Taos youth jail has already made Santa Fe's a "de facto regional juvenile center." Commissioners haven't seriously discussed closing it since.

The county receives $185 a day for each child it detains from other jurisdictions, contract payments that amounted to more than $428,000 last year.

"If we closed, we would have to transport all these kids to another location, which affects a lot of different things," Sedillo argues, such as taking beat cops off the street to book youth at other lockups.

Tommy Rodriguez, the regional administrator for Juvenile Justice Services, strikes a similar tone.

Closing the jail, he says, "would be like removing kids from the community again. Kids who commit serious offenses need to be housed someplace, so we'd have to move them to places like Bernalillo or Las Cruces."

Even DeMella thinks jailing youth has its place.

"If a kid murders someone or rapes, and there are people like that, they belong in jail, but not in the cell by themselves," he says. "They should get therapy and education, they should be taken care of in jail, not just thrown in there like an old box. We need comprehensive programming for those kids."

Large-scale alternatives to jailing continue to catch on elsewhere. Earlier this year, for example, Connecticut closed its only juvenile correction facility. Journalist Nell Bernstein has argued that the practice of incarcerating any youth should be abolished, because of the effects of institutionalization and because it is intractably racist in practice. (As elsewhere, children of color in New Mexico are disproportionately incarcerated.)

"If you think of the major developmental tasks of adolescence, they're things like: Forming trusting relationships, which is taboo inside any locked facility," Bernstein said in an interview with now-defunct The Awl. "They live this very regimented life where they're not allowed to make any decisions or ask any questions or form any relationships."

There have been no reported accusations of abuse by staff at the Santa Fe facility in recent years, nor have there been reports of sexual assault, both of which have plagued other facilities across the country. One youth to whom SFR sent a list of questions and who declined to give his name said his month-long stint at the facility helped him.

For others like Adam, the routines of jail life were damaging, especially after repeated visits. He says he doesn't want other youth to experience what he did as a teenager.

"Personally, I don't like to be institutionalized," he tells SFR. "It doesn't teach you nothing, until something real happens, like you're facing a year [in jail]."

He is now working to finish his GED, making up for time he lost while incarcerated at various times over the last couple of years.