Billion-Dollar Bad Guys

The county's jails are crammed full. But not with the dangerous felons backers of an initiative to raise money for new jails would have you believe.

Cerepanya suspects that county employees wanted to meet with consultants to make sure the county's desires would be reflected in plans before they were put forward to the committee. Unlike Cerepanya, other members were wholeheartedly behind the new jails. But none of them, she says, liked to think they were being duped by the county.

Member Meyer Turken, while he was unhappy that the county had pulled a "power play," downplays the incident's importance. "That's little bitty stuff," he says.

"There was no secret meeting," Irvine says, adding that the original meeting had been canceled by the consultants themselves because they weren't ready to present their findings to the committee members. He says all but Cerepanya considered it a "tempest in a teapot."

But consultant Karen Chinn disagrees with Irvine and backs up Cerepanya's version. The county had canceled the meeting so its staffers could convene with the consultants and get a preview of what they would tell the committee, she says.

Later, all but one committee member signed a memo written by Cerepanya and addressed to chairman Irvine complaining about their treatment.

No mention of the memo was made in the committee's final report to the county.

And a dissenting, minority report submitted by Cerepanya also is not included in the materials the county hands out as the official work of the committee.

Cerepanya prepared her minority report with the help of ASU professor Peg Bortner, who testified to the committee that its recommendations for new juvenile detention facilities, in particular, were misguided.

"Four poorly advertised and poorly attended meetings were the token gesture of public input. At every turn, however, the powers that be within the system were permitted unlimited access to the committee. They used this access to attempt to manipulate the committee's opinion in order to protect and expand existing turf," Cerepanya wrote. "We were told repeatedly that there would never be the political will to fund treatment alternatives for children, so the only option was to build the cells. The citizens committee voted to build 500 juvenile beds because they believed there was no other choice."

The consultants recommended that the county develop 350 new beds to meet the need of an increasing juvenile-offender population. An additional 150 juveniles, the consultants reasoned, could be diverted to alternative programs, such as residential treatment centers. Several private providers said at the committee's meetings that they could provide space for those juveniles, and at a much lower cost than building new county juvenile beds.

The citizens committee, however, decided that building 500 beds was a better idea. They were swayed, Irvine says, by a convincing presentation by Judge John Foreman, who at that time was presiding judge of the county's juvenile courts.

Foreman tells New Timesthat, with the current 277 beds at two detention centers filled to overcapacity, the county courts can't pursue creative programs to rehabilitate salvageable kids.

"And the court is good at it, dammit. I am so frustrated that we can do such a good job if we just have the resources," he says.

Unlike adult jails, the juvenile detention beds could be used in a less rigid manner. "In the juvenile courts, you need to move very, very quickly," Foreman says. The additional 388 beds the new tax could bring, he says, could give judges creative alternatives to probation or the state juvenile corrections system. A quick 48 hours in a detention center, for example, could make the difference in the life of a juvenile on a bad path.

ASU's Bortner objects to the judge's plan to hold a juvenile in a locked facility as a form of treatment. She notes that the county's consultants had proposed building beds for detention, meaning a repository for offenders awaiting disposition of their cases. That disposition, in most cases, has meant probation, community-based treatments, or assignment to the state's juvenile corrections division. (Violent or chronic juveniles, since the passage of Proposition 102 in 1996, are automatically transferred to adult court.)

"It sounds like he's talking about creating their own prison--talking about using them for whatever they want--which is a tremendous expansion," says ASU's Bortner. "So now we're saying that the norm will be treatment delivered in a locked facility [as opposed to in-community group homes or other facilities]. The only way to get treatment is to be locked up."

Foreman stresses, however, that juvenile detention beds are not like adult jails. "Detention is not jail. It does take away freedom. But it is a taking away of freedom with positive purposes."

Not everyone in detention is an offender, he points out. The new beds will also give the county more room for the littlest children who are held to keep them away from abusive parents.

Bortner is not convinced. She says locking up nonviolent juveniles should be a last resort. But the county has opted for "the most expensive [up to $150,000 per bed], the most restrictive, the most punitive, the most stigmatizing facilities."

"You can't build your way out of a crowding crisis," says Larry Mays, a New Mexico State University professor who studies the country's jails.

"We can control the population coming in or control the population going out. And hopefully, the thing we could do best is reduce recidivism," he says. "So many of these people keep coming back, time after time, doing life on the installment plan." Building new jails, he adds, doesn't cut down that flow of inmates into the system, which should be the real goal of government.

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