Choosing treatment: Taos County mulls plan for jailed youth


Taos County leaders are looking to possibly convert part of the Taos County Juvenile Detention Center into a treatment center for young people in an effort to ease the hemorrhaging of taxpayer money for the costly facility while increasing therapeutic services for local kids.

The plan to create a "residential treatment center" for young people hasn't been formally adopted by the county, but has strong advocates among local social workers and the youth jail director, Lt. Andrew Montoya.

The idea for the treatment center came out of conversations in the past few months about potentially closing the juvenile jail.

The youth jail is adjacent to the Taos County Adult Detention Center at the Taos County Administration/Judicial Complex on Albright Street, which was built less than a decade ago. The youth jail has 18 beds, mostly for boys, yet there is rarely a time when it is at capacity.

Several years ago, Montoya decided he wanted to do more than just warehouse kids, many of whom come from chaotic homes, abusive families and traumatic situations. He started pulling together a team of local volunteers who teach meditation, yoga, creative writing and gardening. They started giving the kids the tools and language to work through their emotions.

It started working.

"Our use-of-force incidents and instances of violence started going way down. We didn't have to call mental health [counselors] all the time. We weren't seeing the same kids over and over again. And our population kept going down," Montoya said.

In fact, over the past year, there have been stretches of days or weeks at a time when no kids are being held in the jail.

But what's good for juvenile justice isn't so for the immediate bottom line. Even when empty of detained youth, the jail is fully staffed and operational. And that's a costly endeavor. Taxpayers shell out about $900,000 to $950,000 a year to operate the youth jail. That money comes out of the county's general fund, which is primarily padded with property taxes.

Taos County Commissioner Gabe Romero, the only sitting commissioner who was in office during the build-out of the Taos County Administration/Judicial Complex, told The Taos News the youth jail was built larger than necessary because county leaders "hoped we were going to get young people from other counties ... to earn some extra money."

Indeed, only 157 of 339 kids detained in the youth detention center over the last three years were from Taos County.

But with fewer kids overall and a lower-than-average daily fee for those from neighboring counties, the local youth jail has proven to be an evermore costly facility.

"Because we haven't had that revolving door with our kids, that's when they stated looking at really closing us down," Montoya said.

Simply closing the youth jail would only save the county about a quarter of the jail's budget, Montoya said, because adults from the other side of the jail would surely be moved into the space, meaning costs for staff, food and medical contracts would largely remain flat. Furthermore, closing the youth jail would mean local kids would definitely be shuffled around the state - eliminating any chance of rehabilitating them within their own community.

So Montoya decided to make a bold and creative proposal: transform the space into a place of healing where young people from this community could get the therapeutic help they need close to home.

A residential treatment center is a live-in facility where young people get a variety of therapeutic services, such as mental and behavioral health counseling, family counseling and, potentially, treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. It's not a jail, so kids can be taken outside of the facility. They are still ordered to be there by the court, but rather than trying to speed them through the juvenile justice system, they get three- and four-month stints, meaning staff members have a longer time to work on treating the underlying causes of youth crime.

The impetus to give kids alternatives to incarceration isn't new. The Annie E. Casey Foundation began its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative - which Montoya cited as an evidenced-based prototype - more than 25 years ago with the goals of reducing juvenile crime and incarceration while lessening the racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

According to a 2017 report from the foundation, its juvenile justice reforms have been implemented in 300 municipal and state jurisdictions. While racial and ethnic disparities have persisted or worsened, the overall reliance on juvenile detention has steadily decreased. The foundation saw a 43 percent reduction in the daily population of juveniles in detention centers along with a 40 percent reduction in youth crime.

The foundation's approach to alternatives has been used in Bernalillo County since the late 1990s. A 10-year study of the area's efforts showed the county nearly halved its daily population of youth in detention.

Under the Taos County proposal, half of the youth jail would be converted to a 12-bed treatment center, while eight beds would be reserved for the youth jail. The two sides would be physically separated using about $15,000 to partition the space and make it more suitable for therapeutic purposes.

Montoya said he has no illusions that a jail is not an ideal space for healing. "One of the major issues is sound, the slamming door and the echo of it. I don't know if it is meant to be a psychological thing, but it is," he said. But having a building to work with is a major first step in the process.

Furthermore, it would take about $300,000 to jump-start the administrative transformation. Nonviolence Works, a local behavioral health group that would eventually provide clinical services for both the jail and treatment center, would coach the county through the two-year credentialing process.

Despite those challenges, community members, social workers and even county leaders roundly agree more treatment is needed, especially for youth.

About 70 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Nearly a quarter have multiple diagnoses, meaning their behavioral health needs are even more complex and far reaching, Montoya said.

"We understand our youth and are trying to make it work for our community," said Simon Torrez, executive director of Nonviolence Works.

Taos County Manager Leandro Cordova told The Taos News the next phase is getting all the details, financial and otherwise, of the plan before working up a timeline to actually implement the proposal.

As Cordova told the Taos County commission last week during a formal presentation, "The bottom line is we're going to need to put more money into detention. We just need to increase those resources."