Earlier this year, the Albuquerque-based community activist group, the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), was in the planning stages of a juvenile justice campaign. The group’s director George Luján told NM Political Report that the planning stage quickly turned to an “emergency response campaign” to push state and local facilities to expeditiously release youth from juvenile facilities.
“So, instead of spending six months planning a campaign, we immediately launched into a set of recommendations to release young people and ensure their safety in those facilities,” Luján said.
SWOP has sent out numerous press releases and open letters to state officials asking them to release more youth from facilities, similar to pushes by advocates for a reduction in inmates in adult detention centers. Luján said the response from the state has been underwhelming, while the head of the Children Youth and Families Department has said they have released as many youth as they can while also considering the safety of the community.
The issue of juvenile facilities and who should be let out is a complicated one. Community activists argue that the youth who are still in state and county facilities not only face the risk of COVID-19, but are also facing emotional damage by being separated from their families. Those community activists also argue that too much money is being spent on committing youth to state facilities and not enough is being spent on prevention.
“We’ve had programs that have been successful,” Luján said. “[The local non profit organization] La Plazita Institute is probably the most often cited example, but they just don’t get enough resources. You know it’s so much easier for us, for some reason, to invest in these [state] facilities than it is into the alternative programs that work.”
Luján also said many children and families offer cries for help that often go overlooked or are ignored before it’s too late.
“These young people and families warn us when they’re in crisis, and then when things happen, and when it finally gets to be too much, we’re still surprised,” he said.
Abby Long knows about unanswered cries for help.
She told NM Political Report that when she started seeing signs of trouble on her son Seven Long’s social media accounts, she tried everything to stop him from falling in with dangerous crowds. She said she saw that gangs were trying to recruit her then 12-year-old son and that he was headed towards a path of drug use.
But, Abby told NM Political Report, when she tried to show authorities and state agencies what her son was up to, she kept getting the same answer: Unless he broke the law, there was little anyone could do. Abby said she even tried to have Seven arrested after he took her laptop. But Abby said police told her they did not consider it stolen because Seven lived with her.
“I really was left with no option but to kind of just watch this trainwreck happen,” Abby said. “And it wasn’t for a lack of me desperately reaching out for help.”
Then, on Seven’s 15th birthday he was arrested for murder. In 2019, he admitted in court to first-degree murder, shooting at or from a vehicle and aggravated battery and was committed to state custody under CYFD. Abby said the same social media accounts she tried to share with law enforcement ended up being used in court to prove Seven’s guilt. By that time, pictures of Seven being escorted in handcuffs by police were widely published by news outlets.
Abby said she understands that her son’s actions took the life of one person and have forever changed the life of the victims’ families. She said even though Seven’s actions were violent, he’s not a violent person by nature. Abby said she’s convinced her son was coerced into those acts of violence by one of his co-defendants, who was 23 at the time.
Diana Garcia, the deputy district attorney in charge of juvenile justice in Bernalillo County said she remembers hearing Abby tell her story.
“I can’t imagine having been in Abby’s situation because I’ve listened to her talk about everything she tried,” Garcia said. “And it really breaks my heart because I think that she really did try and just got blocked at every step of the way.”
Garcia said in juvenile cases the focus is less on the crime itself and more on the child, but that it’s also her office’s job to consider public safety.
“In this instance, given what [Seven] was alleged to have done, there was no way in our minds that we could assure safety of the public if he wasn’t committed,” Garcia said. “And so he was committed.”
She said the closest thing the state has to a “long-term lockdown treatment” is being committed to CYFD.
“If there was another facility and kids could go there for long term treatment, I don’t think that that’s something that we would be opposed to,” Garcia said.
The lack of state programs was even more evident in last year’s sentencing of Nehemiah Griego, who killed his parents and siblings almost a decade ago. Last November, Griego’s attorney argued that his client should be sent to an intensive rehabilitation program. But noting an absence of such a program, the judge in that case sentenced Giego to an adult detention center.
“I think that there is a huge gap,” Garcia said. “Parents need a place that they can reach out to, that’s able to give them the resources that they need.”
So, for now, that would be CYFD.
Need for a plan
SWOP has called on both Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock to release more youth from state custody, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, Blalock said the state has already released everyone they can while also considering the safety of the public.
Blalock also said because of previous reforms to CYFD, many kids who commit low level offenses never end up in CYFD in the first place.
“Those kids simply don’t get in anymore,” Blalock said.
Luján said he doesn’t buy that all of the youth left in state facilities are violent.
“I don’t think they’re really able to demonstrate that the young folks inside are all violent,” Luján said.
Blalock said he’s met over the phone with SWOP and has heard their call to mass-release children from state custody but that he hasn’t heard any specific ways to do that safely. He said he and SWOP likely agree on many things, but until there is a specific plan from community organizers, there’s little reason to keep having meetings.
“What we try not to do is schedule meetings that are just about aspirations,” he said.
Although, he said he values aspirations, too.
“I think there are advocates whose real strength is to talk about aspirations, and we need those, especially in an environment where the administration might not agree with them,” Blalock said. “We happen to agree. I think there’s probably lots of points of agreement. And so then we need people who have experience, who built systems, who know what specifics we can put in place that really help kids.”