New Mexico continues to have one of the nation’s highest rates of juvenile incarceration, with its rate of 227 per 100,000 population rivaling those found in incarceration-heavy California, Nevada and Alaska. Yet the issue hasn’t been a top priority for the Legislature and the courts since 2007, when lawmakers passed a wide-ranging reform bill that showed initial promise.

There are signs, however, that “juvenile justice” is once again receiving some attention. Last year, the Legislature passed a law that removes the nonrefundable “application” fee for the use of juvenile public defenders, something that makes it “easier and less costly for young people and their parents to seek representation,” the National Conference of State Legislatures noted.

That’s a useful albeit modest reform, but it does highlight renewed interest in a festering problem that has serious ramifications for the state’s long-term crime rates. Young offenders will ultimately be released from detention, so it’s best to keep them out of a system that too often serves as a training ground for a lifetime of criminal behavior.

Furthermore, the New Mexico Supreme Court last month announced the formation of a permanent commission that brings together various levels of state and local government to direct public services toward an often-overlooked aspect of the criminal justice system: mental-health issues. The new “road map” attempts to help adults and juveniles.

As the Las Cruces Bulletin reported, the court said its “objectives shall be to promote fair treatment of affected individuals, to improve public safety through appropriate and meaningful behavioral health interventions, and to provide proper education and training to judges, lawyers, court staff” and others involved in the justice system.

But New Mexico officials could do a lot more – and some of its recent policies actually are setting back the cause of improving the fairness of its juvenile-justice system. In 2020, the Albuquerque Journal reported the state has reduced the number of youth detention centers to four. The good news is that counties have fewer youths in detention, but the closures mainly stem from budget concerns.

As the counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties told the newspaper, “Now we have a situation where, because there are only four juvenile facilities, the kids that are in custody, more often than not are not going to be held in their own community.” Families must now travel longer distances to visit family members in custody – something that undermines important family bonds.

The state needs to ameliorate that situation – and look at embracing bipartisan juvenile-justice reforms that other states are passing. For instance, the National Conference of State Legislatures noted that North Dakota has overhauled its entire juvenile justice code with an eye toward enhancing social services. Idaho now prohibits out-of-home placement for minor offenses such as truancy.

Six states increased the minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction in a bid to keep kids as young as 8 or 9 out of the system. Five other states – ranging from liberal states such as Illinois and Delaware to conservative states such as Utah – “all passed legislation ensuring due process protections for young people when they are interrogated by law enforcement,” the group added. Other states made it easier for young people to expunge their records.

This issue crosses ideological boundaries. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative alternative to the national conference, supports model legislation with these goals: “For states to achieve better outcomes with each dollar spent on the juvenile justice system, they need to economize on their use of expensive juvenile correctional facilities and invest in programs … effective in reducing recidivism.”

When the New Mexico Legislature passed the Juvenile Justice Continuum Act, its goal, according to legislative documents, was to develop community-based programs to reduce youth incarceration rates. The Legislature points to significant ensuing reductions in detention and commitment rates. It’s time for New Mexico to make this a priority again.

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