Officials seek alternatives to juvenile incarceration

By Andy Jackson: CNJ staff writer

Officials say Clovis needs a juvenile justice facility for runaways and first-time petty offenders, equipped with classrooms and counselors instead of jail cells and guards.

Curry County Commissioner Tim Ashley heads a 15-member juvenile justice committee formed about a month ago, based on a county committee formed five years ago as a response to overcrowding at the county’s juvenile detention center, he said.

Ashley doesn’t believe incarceration is the answer to many juvenile crime issues.

“I don’t subscribe to that theory that the best process is to build a larger (detention) facility. When you institutionalize a child it sets a behavioral pattern; the idea is to break the cycle,” Ashley said.

Curry County has several juvenile systems in place, including behavioral classes and teen court for misdemeanor offenders, but it’s not enough, court and county officials say.

The director of Clovis’ teen court, Karen Garcia, said education classes focused on temper, relationships and job skills already exist. Classes meet in the Clovis-Carver Public Library two times a week for one to two hours, she said.

But they are overflowing, she said.

“We’re running out of room. We could use more space,” Garcia said.

Juvenile justice committee member and Curry County Manager Dick Smith agrees.

“Teen court is working well but is a victim of its own success. It’s outgrowing its facility,” he said.

State Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, agrees rehabilitation can occur in a classroom:

“Behavioral modification seminars help. It is worth investing energy into them,” he said.

Harden said before constructing a new facility, other educational facilities, such as Clovis Community College, should be considered to alleviate overcrowding and limited funding.

Garcia said teen court, behavioral classes and community service are effective deterrents to recidivism. Six of 100 juveniles come back to teen court more than once, and the program handled some felony crimes as well as misdemeanors, she said. Thirty-two first time juvenile offenders passed through teen court and behavioral seminars last month, she said.

Ninth Judicial Deputy District Attorney and juvenile justice committee member Fred Van Soelen said juveniles are sentenced to other substance abuse centers and boot camps in the state because Clovis doesn’t have any.

“There seems to be a lack of local treatment resources,” he said.

The juvenile citation program is another way to circumvent arrest and detention, officials say. It allows police the option to ticket and release first-time juvenile petty offenders in lieu of arrest and detention, according to City of Clovis Grant Coordinator Sandra Chancey.

If Clovis had a juvenile drop-off facility, then officers could more readily choose to cite rather than arrest, according to Clovis Police Lt. James Schoeffel.

“If we had one place where we could drop off juveniles until a parent could respond to pick them up, that would be beneficial,” Schoeffel said.

Clovis had 111 juvenile runaways in 2004.

Runaways don’t belong in jail, Schoeffel and Ashley said, but they are often placed in detention until a guardian can claim responsibility, Schoeffel said.

Schoeffel supports the idea of a juvenile facility but cautions potential legal issues judges may face:

“These kids would not be free to leave, but they wouldn’t be under arrest,” so detaining them may be an issue, he said.
The idea of constructing a facility is in its infancy, though the juvenile justice committee is exploring possible funding sources, Ashley said.

“We want every organization in the community to be involved,” Ashley said.

Ashley proposed possible facility locations: the old Memorial Hospital building, Clovis Community College, and Matt 25, Inc., he said.

Garcia said a juvenile facility would need to be “centrally located,” because many kids presently walk from school to teen court and behavior classes, she said.