- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico’s juvenile detention centers reported more injuries from youth-on-youth and use-of-force encounters with corrections staff this past year, while state figures showed the percentage of juvenile offenders going back into the system as adults has doubled.

Legislative Finance Committee senior analyst Kelly Klundt presented the findings to lawmakers Wednesday.

Child welfare officials suggested the troubling numbers could be attributed to recent policy changes, a rise in age among juvenile offenders, and an effort to reduce the number of youth in detention facilities that has resulted in the state holding only those in need of the most attention.

“You’re going to have the toughest of the bunch in there right now,” said Monique Jacobson, who was appointed in March to lead New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department.

A high turnover rate among corrections staff in the fiscal year ending in June also was cause for concern within the system, and could explain recent performance trends, Klundt said.

The Legislative Finance Committee’s report comes as lawmakers and officials review a reformed approach to young offenders in the state that recently began emphasizing rehabilitation programs, such as employment skills, over harsher detention measures like solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement was discontinued for youth in 2013 - a policy change that Jacobson said should be factored into figures that otherwise suggest a performance decline in the juvenile justice system.

“It’s not that we are saying we need it back,” Jacobson said. “But now that we no longer have that tool of being able to remove these kids from a situation and get them an extended cool-down period, how do we make sure we’re working through situations with them?”

Klundt said 12 percent of youth who completed sentences in the past two years were booked into adult correctional facilities last year - up from 6 percent the year before.

Meanwhile, 40 injuries stemming from encounters between youth and corrections staff or other youth held in detention facilities marked a slight increase from 33 the year before.

The reported injuries may include those requiring medical attention, as well as bruises or scrapes, according to Henry Varela, spokesman for the state youth and families agency. He also said the recorded injuries could be those suffered by youth or staff.

“All those incidences are thoroughly reviewed for staff misconduct, or procedural gaps,” Varela said. “If a staff member is forced to restrain (a youth) or use use-of-force during the incident, that’s recorded.”

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