The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Officials still weighing action on juvie center


February 19, 2020

CLOVIS — In the 2012 film “Argo,” CIA agents plot to smuggle six American embassy workers out of Iran by pretending they’re part of a film crew. The agents’ pitch to higher-ups covers how they know it’s a longshot but, “It’s the best bad idea we’ve had.”

Curry County commissioners are still weighing what the best bad idea is with the county’s sparingly used juvenile detention center: Keep it open and shoulder the burdens of a state juvenile system with dwindling housing options, or close it and take on the logistics of local court hearings with a defendant housed a few counties away?

Commissioners discussed the matter over about 45 minutes with Grace Philips, head counsel for New Mexico Counties, to close out Tuesday’s regular commission meeting. The item was information only, and the commission adjourned following the discussion without any action.

Statewide juvenile detention, for numerous reasons, has dropped from 4,056 in 2010 to 1,597 last year. In Curry County, the drop was 73% over that time period, from 302 to 80. Philips said many juveniles require detaining, but for those facing lighter charges detention may be counterproductive in rehabilitation.

With fewer juveniles to detain, seven state facilities have shut down since 2015. Curry is one of six facilities remaining and serves six other counties in what Philips called a “de facto regional system.” Of those six counties, four of them sent a total of 22 juveniles to the Curry facility last year.

Statewide last year, $18.5 million was spent on juvenile detention, and eight counties totaled $16.5 million of it. And two of those counties, Luna and Chaves, will shoulder less in 2020 because they shuttered their facilities last year.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think a handful of counties should shoulder the costs for the state,” Philips said.

Philips noted that a pair of memorials in the legislative session, House Memorial 14 and Senate Memorial 15, to create a task force to study the issues passed unanimously.

Commissioner Chet Spear raised hypotheticals of a facility having no room for a juvenile, or that a juvenile posed too much of a risk for the six remaining facilities to house.

“That’s why we need to have these conversations,” Philips said.

Spear said the counties that operate juvenile facilities have increased responsibilities and liabilities. County Manager Lance Pyle noted later in the meeting the increased juvenile population meant a $41,000 spike in liability insurance.

“I don’t know,” Spear said, “if we want to take the additional liability of a Roosevelt County or a Chaves County juvenile for $200 a day.”

Should Curry close its juvenile detention center, its sheriff’s department would be responsible for transporting Curry County juveniles from whatever facility ends up housing them to local court hearings.

The closest current center to Clovis is in Lovington, Sheriff Wesley Waller said, which means that one court hearing would essentially take a transport officer’s entire day. Waller estimated the county would need to hire two additional transport officers and acquire two more vehicles. If the Lea County facility was to also shutter, Waller said the next closest facility was in Torrance County and the discussions would include per diem and lodging expenses.

“Logistically,” Waller said, “it’s pretty troublesome.”

Spear asked Philips about the possibility of hearings via teleconference to save on travel costs. Philips said that would be an option to discuss, but that would likely mean a juvenile would need an attorney in each county.

Pyle briefly noted to commissioners the county would probably come out slightly ahead financially were it to pick closure over remaining open, but that there are too many variables to nail down exact numbers.

Should the task force come to fruition, Philips said the conversations would certainly be important but countered, “We’re not in a position at New Mexico Counties to tell people what to do.”


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