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SWCCA members hear report on juvenile detention center

Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series of articles on the recent SWCCA meeting in Deming.

The Southwest County Commission Alliance met in Deming on Wednesday afternoon to discuss issues of common concern among county commissioners of Grant, Catron, Hidalgo, Luna and Sierra counties.

During public input, Donna Stevens, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance director, said she is concerned about the SWCCA just being another layer of bureaucracy. "I have heard the purpose is to collaborate with other counties to reach common goals, but you already have the Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments."

She said she has heard the members are disgruntled about the Forest Service Travel Management Plan. "You may not agree with it, but there has been enough public input. Misinformation is being purposefully put out. More than 3,300 miles would remain. That's enough to drive from San Diego to Maine. Citizens deserve trust and facts from public officials."

At the first meeting of the SWCCA, she said a sheriff had said he would cut lock, but Stevens said law enforcement officials could not selectively choose which laws to obey.

Dan Lorimier of the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter said his organization believes the Forest Service is best prepared to manage the forests, including the Gila. "They are the best administrator for public land in New Mexico. I wonder how many federal dollars are received by your counties. The Forest Service is unbiased and the best manager."

Walter Szymanski proposed to the alliance that its members adopt a civil discourse resolution, because there has been uncivil language at the recent public meetings, such as "smashing watermelons," referring to some people as green on the outside and red on the inside.

Szymanski read his proposed resolution, which included that the members and attendees at the meetings should strive to: speak with integrity; use a civil tone of voice; discuss issues, policies and ideas, not people; invite and encourage a variety of perspectives; avoid the use of vitriolic rhetoric and dismissive words and phrases; refrain from making statements, which characterize as evil those with different views; recognize and value different forms of evidence ranging from testimony to statistical evidence and storytelling; provide everyone at the meeting the opportunity to speak, including managing inequalities of access and power; and refrain from engaging in any speech or activity that involves intimidation, bigotry, threat, hate or instigation of illegal acts.

Alliance Chairman Gabriel Ramos thanked him for his input.

Alex Thal, Southwest Resource Analysis, announced workshops for Native Americans, and county and municipal governments on how to participate in government processes, such as the National Environmental Policy Act procedures and environmental impact statements. It will take place in Albuquerque on Oct. 26.

Walter Anderson of the Hidalgo County Soil and Water Conservation District, saluted the alliance members for their attempts to be at the same table as the federal agencies. He also announced an Inside USA workshop in Albuquerque to focus on personal rights and private property rights. "I urge your support for a resolution that gives control to state government, especially on hazardous material issues."

Under old business, Anderson reported no recent changes in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument proposal. Darr Shannon, SWCCA secretary, asked if there would be interest among the alliance members to support HR 4334, which calls for a smaller amount of acreage in an Organ Mountains National Monument.

SWCCA Chairman Gabriel Ramos asked if members were interested in a work group to work with the Gila National Forest on the Travel Management Plan.

Alvin Campbell, Sierra County commissioner, agreed there should be such a group.

Ramos said the choice of members should be left up to the commissioners.

Joe "Oleo" Milo, Luna County commissioner, suggested representatives should be those already involved in the process.

Campbell volunteered, and Ramos volunteered Brett Kasten of the Grant County Commission. Van G. "Bucky" Allred was recommended by Catron County Commissioner Glyn Griffin, and Javier Diaz, Luna County commissioner volunteered for the group.

The next item of business was a follow up to a letter sent to Gov. Susana Martinez by Catron County asking her to remain engaged with providing input to federal land management agencies. Hugh B. McKeen, Catron County commissioner, said Forest Service management is the reason for the Whitewater-Baldy fire and the economic problems the county has.

Ramos reported that Congressman Steve Pearce, when he visited Silver City last week, said there had been a change in Forest Service policy to put out more fires instead of letting them burn to manage the forest.

McKeen cautioned that not all fires should be put out. "That's the reason we had the big fire this summer was because so many fires have been put out for endangered species. Forest health needs fire."

"I urge you to understand the fire in Catron County was 32 miles long and 23 wide," Allred said. "The Forest Service had 15 days to put the two smaller fires out, but once it was catastrophic, they had to call in a Type 2 Team and then a Type 1 team to manage it. It is important to understand there were fires started that were unnecessary. Corbin Newman, Regional Forester, said: 'Something has to change in our management.'

"All of our industry in Catron County is gone," Allred continued. "We have had no logging for years. The Catwalk was taken out, so we have no tourism in Glenwood and Catron County now."

The next speaker on the agenda item was Matthew Elwell, Luna County Detention Center director. He was tasked at the last meeting of the group to look at what would be needed to make the Luna County juvenile detention center a regional center for the counties in the alliance.

"We have 14 beds for juveniles—10 for males and four for females," Elwell said. "We run with an average of 11 juveniles in detention, so we have three empty beds at a time. This number does not include the number of juveniles that counties send elsewhere. That is the number we need to have."

He said the juveniles have a 43 percent recidivism rate, so "we need to look at what interventions need to be put in place."

He pointed out that a high level of those detained, male and female, are Hispanic, with Hispanic males making up 55 percent of the population, and Hispanic females making up 64 percent of the female detainees.

"We need to look at the culture and whether the juvenile offenders are coming from single-parent homes, are on drugs or what reasons," Elwell said. "We have programming to continue their education, but we receive homework only from Luna County schools. We need help from the other counties so the juveniles get their homework and continue their education, and so we can facilitate testing. We have counseling one-on-one and also have behavioral health specialists come into the center.

"We need release planning from other counties, so the juveniles know where they are going when they are released," he continued. "We help them stay structured."

Part of the expense of running a juvenile center is based on state regulations, he said. Each juvenile has to have his or her own cell, and one officer oversees no more than 10 juveniles, "so if even one more juvenile comes in, we have to call in another officer. We need six officers to cover one pod of 10, because it is 24/7 and we need two for relief when officers are sick, on vacation or in training.

"Our cost is $124.75 per day per inmate," Elwell said. "To build a future regional facility would cost at least $275 per square foot, so we need to have the true incarceration rate. For two pods with 10 cells each would cost a minimum of $1.65 million. Then we would need recurring funds of $455,328 per year, which would be almost $1 million a year for two pods."

He said his recommendation is to get detention center officials, juvenile parole and probation officers and the judicial system together to discuss the options. "We also need to do due diligence to reduce recidivism."

Grant County Manager Jon Paul Saari noted that judges are not incarcerating females at the same rate as males.

"And while in the old facility, we had a daily average of inmates in the 60s, as soon as we moved into the new facility, judges began incarcerating more, so that we now have an average of 85 a day, because we have more room," Saari said. "I don't think judges are incarcerating juveniles as often because there is no space for them. Plus because of the certification process, it is harder to take care of juveniles than adults. For instance, we have to measure the temperature of the food for juveniles. We need to change the laws, because it is so hard to certify.  The Children, Youth and Families Department puts on us to regulate according to state mandates, but won't help us. I think all the counties need to come together on this issue. I have juveniles all over the state."

Richard McGuire, Catron County commissioner, asked if Luna County had more juvenile inmates because they do not ship them to other counties.

Elwell confirmed the county's priority is to keep juvenile inmates in the local facility. "The average length of stay is 13 days, with some longer."

Shannon said she had talked to her fellow commissioners in Hidalgo County about the juvenile detention issue. "We have a brand new jail with 140 beds, and only 16 beds are filled. The costs are 'eating our lunch, dinner and breakfast.' We are waiting for approval to take federal prisoners, but we are considering turning the jail into a juvenile detention center if we have cooperation of the other counties."

Saari said it was a good idea, but CYFD should be invited to check out the facility first.

"We will," Shannon said. "Of course, if we changed it, we would have to ship out our adults to Grant County or Luna County.

The rest of the meeting will be concluded in a following article.

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