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Youth advocates criticize New Mexico governor's move to ramp up juvenile detention

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Last fall, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a sweeping series of executive orders to address gun violence and drug use. It also addressed the need for addiction treatment among young offenders. But in some cases, the change means that minors get sent to detention, where treatment might not be available. Megan Myscofski at KUNM explains.

MEGAN MYSCOFSKI, BYLINE: At the Santa Fe Recovery Center, Joslyn Herrera helps find services for people struggling with addiction.

JOSLYN HERRERA: She doesn't have anywhere to stay overnight, so I was thinking, maybe we can see if the crisis center...

MYSCOFSKI: Herrera is 29 and used to struggle with addiction herself. She started using painkillers by age 13 and had moved on to heroin by the time she was 18. As a teen, she was arrested regularly for shoplifting and running from the police. She would be locked up for anywhere from a night to a couple of weeks at a time.

HERRERA: At a young age, you should be offering them more support than putting them in a detention center.

MYSCOFSKI: Herrera did finally beat her addiction, but she says it didn't happen in juvenile detention and never would have.

HERRERA: It was a horrible experience, especially having to go through the withdraws, being locked and confined in a place where they treat you disrespectfully.

MYSCOFSKI: Herrera says she didn't embrace treatment until she was older. She says going to juvenile detention just made her a better criminal. In September, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a public health order to address gun violence and drugs in the state.

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MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: We rank among the worst in child well-being and in violence in our state.

MYSCOFSKI: A spokesperson for the governor said the public health order mandates that if a young patient needs drug treatment, then Medicaid contractors must find a placement within 24 hours. But that treatment might not exist. A recent state study found only a third of New Mexicans struggling with addiction were getting treatment. Dr. Chloe Stoffel works with young people in recovery at the University of New Mexico.

CHLOE STOFFEL: We have a lack of resources in general for our young people, but when it comes to kids struggling with substance use disorder, it's a much, much, much, much, much smaller pool of resources for those kids.

MYSCOFSKI: But advocates are most concerned about a different part of the governor's order. That part rolls back a policy allowing some minors who get arrested to avoid juvenile detention. Now more young people are going straight to jail who otherwise wouldn't have. Nearly a third of young people detained in the last three months would have been allowed to stay home, pending trial, before the change. So why did the governor change that? Lujan Grisham says she thinks detention could help young people confront addiction.

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LUJAN GRISHAM: That's often the way that you get particularly a young person or a young adult to be able to accept treatment.

MYSCOFSKI: The governor's office did not provide any evidence for this. Dr. Matthew Aalsma is a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine. He says detention rarely motivates young people struggling with addiction.

MATTHEW AALSMA: Research has pretty consistently shown that a court order into treatment doesn't predict treatment engagement.

MYSCOFSKI: The problem with detention is that many kids learn worse behavior behind bars and usually go back.

AALSMA: A much better approach to help a young person get into treatment is to make that referral in the community, to use resources in the community to motivate that young person to show up and to engage.

MYSCOFSKI: At the juvenile detention center in Albuquerque, there are some medical and psychological services, but young people are only there for brief periods of time. Serenity Mesa is different. It's a private facility for young people in recovery.

DAVID BURKE: We've got an unobstructed view of the entire city. All the leaves are changing right now. They're gold, yellow, green.

MYSCOFSKI: David Burke runs Serenity Mesa. He says most kids treated here have already been in detention. The program here includes therapy, as well as lessons on things like writing a resume or getting an ID.

BURKE: If you put somebody in jail, you don't treat any of that stuff, and you don't treat a way to get a job and to find a different way of doing things. But then you send them back out to the same place that they were and in the same environment and the same situation. They're going to do the same things.

MYSCOFSKI: He says programs like his that help build life skills over time are more likely to help recovery stick. But it's expensive work, which means right now they only have 14 beds.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Myscofski in Albuquerque.

RASCOE: This story comes from NPR's partnership with KUNM and KFF Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Myscofski