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New Mexico’s juvenile booking rules are here to protect youth from overzealous police. I assumed I wouldn’t need to explain why this is needed, but given a recent article from Colleen Heild, perhaps I should.

As of October of last year, whenever an incident between New Mexico’s law enforcement officers and young people occurs, officers are required to phone an on-call juvenile probation officer for permission to take a youth to a detention facility. This on-call probation officer, trained in de-escalation techniques, takes information and conducts a real-time risk assessment. Despite complaints from state officers over the new policy, these changes make all the difference for youth that have had to reckon with injustice from police with little to no public oversight. Many advocates, including myself, who work with these kids day in and day out to reform New Mexico’s juvenile justice system, want the assessment law to stay.

Police officers in New Mexico are not trained to assess whether a youth should be locked up. There are numerous factors to consider, such as their living situation, family support and mental health. Ultimately, this added step protects the youth’s constitutional rights.

Ms. Heild seems to agree. She notes how across-the-board, detention and criminal prosecution is frowned upon except in the most serious cases when dealing with juvenile offenders in New Mexico and nationwide. But she fails to explain why this is the case. The truth is this: juvenile detention is frowned upon because it is ineffective. Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that incarcerating children only makes crime worse, and young people of color in New Mexico are 6 times more likely than white youth to be targeted by the racist system. This means Black and brown youth are disproportionately stopped, arrested, incarcerated and killed at the hands of police. The data makes it clear that we need resources allocated to community programs instead of juvenile detention. What’s unclear after reviewing the research, is how state officials can conclude that we need an easier process to detain juveniles.

Still, this is the position of Nick Costales, deputy director of CYFD’S juvenile justice field services, according to his interview with Ms. Heild. He believes detaining a juvenile is good policy because it gives state officials a chance to “scare kids straight.”  Of course, this line of reasoning is not new, and has been used throughout America’s history to justify over policing youth of color and removing them from their support systems in order to isolate them from society itself. And although it’s unsurprising that the Albuquerque Police Officers Association (APOA) stated the juvenile booking rules robs young people of the “opportunity” to see what being incarcerated looks like, this kind of sentiment should not come from a department slated to help, not harm children. Our state juvenile justice leaders need a reminder that youth incarceration is at best supposed to be rehabilitative, not punitive.

Further along in the piece, however, CYFD’s cabinet secretary, Brian Blalock, stated their goal is to prevent “juveniles from entering the juvenile justice system.” Despite these mixed messages, we applaud the CYFD for promoting alternatives to youth incarceration. But, the department can’t say one thing and do another. We also can’t fully trust an organization that continues to be unresponsive to Covid-19 infections in youth facilities. It would be irresponsible if New Mexicans unquestionably allow such a group to direct policy on how to keep youth safe.

State officers, including the officers in Bernalillo County, and organizations like the CYFD and APOA need to understand that the new risk assessment rules are in place to protect New Mexico’s children from their wrath. If these groups are truly interested in reforming the state’s juvenile justice system, it will require reallocating state resources to more community programs – not reverting back to little police oversight. It is worth remembering that New Mexico’s ineffective juvenile justice system is to blame for not reforming formerly detained youths in the state, and not the youth themselves.

As we continue to think about improving New Mexico’s juvenile justice system, organizations like The New Mexico Youth Justice Coalition have already begun the hard work of connecting with state youth leaders to help facilitate visioning sessions that ask their peers to share ideas on how to reform the system. The state should more aggressively leverage these groups as a resource to ensure New Mexico’s juvenile justice system is aligned with the needs of actual youth. The youth are our children and need to be listened to if we’re serious about building them a just, equitable, and happy future.