Navajo County will soon reopen its juvenile detention facility and bring home troubled teens who have been shipped out to lockups in other counties.

A big increase in the cost of the existing contract with Pinal County from $175 per day to $350 per day triggered the decision. However, Navajo County juvenile justice authorities hope to start offering new programs to minimize the need to place teenagers in expensive, prison-like facilities.

The move goes hand in hand with other ambitious changes in the Navajo County handling of people who commit crimes — including people with mental illness. County Attorney Brad Carlyon and Sheriff David Clouse have launched multiple initiatives to reduce the incarceration rate and increase community treatment and alternative sentencing options.

“We want to use modern methodology and modern philosophy to help kids and get great outcomes. We’ve made quite a few changes over the past three years. The goal hasn’t changed with criminal justice in general — the goal has always been to protect the community,” Jason Cash explained to the Board of Supervisors about the impending change.

Navajo County in 2017 decided to farm out the teenaged offenders accused of serious crimes to Pinal county at a cost of $175 per day. The move came amidst a budget crisis with the county’s 16-bed facility in Holbrook normally just half full. The county hoped to save $800,000 annually and cut 16 full-time and seven part-time jobs.

However, the county now plans to bring the teens home — partly because it could potentially save money compared to paying $350 a day to have them locked up elsewhere.

Continuing with the contract would cost the county about $1.3 million annually, an increase of almost $500,000 over the fiscal 2020 budget. However, returning most juveniles to a reopened juvenile facility in Holbrook would increase costs over the current year by just $150,000. The county would pay about $700,000 for juvenile staffing but would still have a $250,000 contract with Coconino County to handle juveniles that couldn’t be safely detained in the reopened facility or for teens in excess of the eight-bed limit. The plan also involves $35,000 in facility start-up costs.

The move comes in the shadow of numerous studies showing that locking up teenagers who have committed crimes often merely increases the odds they’ll end up in prison as adults, compared to community based alternatives.

The shift to community treatment options mostly centers on teens who commit offenses that wouldn’t be crime if they were adults, plus vandalism, theft and drug-related offenses.

The new approach would provide things like therapy for both the teen and the family, after-school programs to develop life skills, a crisis center for temporary housing, intensive in-home family counseling and temporary housing for kids whose problems revolve around family patterns or neglect.

“Pre-2018, we had probation, we had detention and education — everything was working together,” said Cash. “But that’s really all we had. We didn’t have programming that really addressed criminogenic behavior. When juveniles had typical teenage offenses — sneaking away, drugs and alcohol — we would incarcerate them. But we weren’t addressing what was the root cause of the behavior. We were using a temporary solution and we were making them more likely to reoffend in the future,” said Cash.

Instead of locking kids up and hoping it will teach them a lesson and change their behavior, the new approach will rely on family and individual counseling and other interventions.

“What’s driving these behaviors? All the research shows you have to look at the entire ecology of the juvenile once you determine those criminogenic risks — you start counseling, counseling with the family, keeping them involved in school. Try to surround them with pro-social activities. Get them involved with health activities.”

The county hopes to operate just one eight-bed “pod” in the detention center — minimizing staff costs. Only teens who pose a danger to themselves or others will end up in the reopened lockup — with services offered to transition them to community-based settings as soon as possible.

“We feel we can keep our detention population under eight fairly easily,” said Cash.

“We’d like to become a licensed behavior modification provider,” he added, in keeping with the overall effort to provide comprehensive mental health addiction treatment and other services in the adult system as well.”

He noted that the county’ is currently recruiting staff. “In order to reopen the detention center, we just have to hire staff and complete all the staff training and certification. All the facility prep is done. We’ve done the walk-through. It’s in pretty good shape.”

Judge Michala Ruechel supported the change. “I’m very excited about the reopening. Our children need to be near our homes. When they’re put back into their home, they need the wrap-around services. It’s very hard to accomplish that for juveniles that have been hundreds of miles away. We’re coming back with something better than we had. We can keep our costs local. We can employ local staff and we can have people in the system that are dedicated to our children.”

Supervisor Dawnafe Whitesinger applauded the proposal. “Families will be able to visit their children — I certainly appreciate that as well as looking at the way we provide services differently and get that additional support they need. I appreciate the thought process that’s been put into that.”

The reopening of the juvenile detention center and the development of counseling options and community treatment complements efforts in the adult system.

Carlyon launched a series of initiatives last year after concluding that simply locking up people with mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction had proved both costly and ineffectual. The county has been working on developing an array of addiction and mental health services, for which the county can often bill AHCCCS, health plans or Medicare.

That includes signing contracts with some mental health treatment programs to send out a mental health crisis team to pick up people creating a disturbance because of their mental health issues — rather than having a deputy handcuff people in crisis and taking them to the county jail.

Research on impact of imprisoning Juveniles:

Research has found that juvenile incarceration fails to reduce recidivism according to an analysis by the PEW Charitable Trust. Here’s a summary of some of those studies.

(https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2015/04/reexamining-juvenile-incarceration#:~:text=In%20general%2C%20research%20has%20found,increase%20it%20in%20some%20cases.):

One effort to combine the results of multiple peer-reviewed studies concluded that placement in correctional facilities does not lower the likelihood of a juvenile reoffending and may, in fact, increase it in some cases.1

A study of serious adolescent offenders in Maricopa County and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania found those in placement fared no better in terms of recidivism than those on probation. The study took into account 66 different factors to make sure the teens in lockup and on probation were comparable. The low-level offenders who were locked up were significantly more likely to reoffend than similar teens place on probation.

A Texas study found that youth in community-based treatment, activity, and surveillance programs had lower rearrest rates than those with similar criminal histories and demographic characteristics who were imprisoned.

A Cook County, Illinois study found that juveniles who were locked up were more likely to drop out of high school and to be incarcerated as adults than youth offenders who were not incarcerated. That study also took into account an array of characteristics to make sure the teens were comparable before evaluating outcomes.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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