Photo by Linda Kor
Navajo County Juvenile Detention Manager Jake Salas stands in one of four detention pods that can house up to eight juvenile offenders. The detention facility houses an average of 15 juveniles, ranging in age from 9 to 17.
By Linda Kor
The juvenile justice system has seen significant changes over the years with a greater expansion on the concept of a therapeutic approach rather than a punitive one when dealing with young offenders. The Navajo County Juvenile Probation Department has taken that mission to heart as it strives to make certain that victims are made whole and that the juveniles in their care are given tools that will direct them to a better path.
Arno Hall is the director of juvenile probation, and working with him is a team of department heads who work together to facilitate their programs. Included on that team is Detention Manager Jake Salas, who oversees the detention facility where the young offenders are held. “People tend to think that we are part of the sheriff’s office, but we are actually mandated through the courts. As a result, the way we’re funded and the way we handle juveniles is not the same as it would be for adults,” he explained.
As each child enters the system he or she is enrolled in Hope School, which is operated under the Navajo County Schools Superintendent’s Office. The juvenile’s previous school is contacted and records are obtained for enrollment, even if it’s not certain that the child will be there more than a few days. “Once we get their records, we develop a plan because each child is at a different education level. We are mandated to enroll them within 48 hours, and then they are either in class or they have left the facility,” said Salas.
Those who work in the probation department seek probation over incarceration when it’s a first offender or a lesser crime, but sometimes even those crimes make holding a juvenile at the detention center necessary. “It’s a challenge in a rural area. If it’s a runaway from out of our area then there aren’t a whole lot of options available until we notify the family. We don’t have the resources in this county and very little foster care,” stated Salas.
Once juveniles are entered into the system Lynda Wilson, the diversion coordinator for juvenile probation, works on a plan to get them back to their families and into programs that can reduce the likelihood of a return visit. She stresses the importance of giving each child a sense of self-worth. “We work with them to set goals and to have hope. Hope is an actual science. If kids have hope and they buy into the concept, then they can achieve their goals,” she said.
According to Wilson, if a juvenile is a first time offender and admits to the charge, resolution may involve restitution to the victim, community service and the ability to remain law abiding for 90 days, with the possibility of counseling. “I’d say 90 percent of the kids find tools to help themselves and 10 percent might violate during the diversion. If they do, then they’ll be in court for the original offense. The goal is to get them to 18 with the skills they need to succeed. It’s a challenge because they also need to get away from those peers that may be influencing that bad behavior,” she explained.
Hall emphasized that admission is critical, otherwise the juvenile is not eligible for diversion. “If they’re eligible for diversion and they complete it, then the charge does not go on their record,” he said, adding that diversion isn’t available to everyone, especially if the crime that was committed was severe.
If the judge rules in favor of probation, there are six probation officers within the county who keep in contact with them, which could be monthly or multiple times a week. Each officer has an average of 15 probationers listed as low, medium or high risk, something determined by an assessment test taken every six months. The goal is to help those kids stay on the “low risk” level.
“What we’ve found is that kids who have more contact with their probation officer are more likely to commit another offense. The determination is that the more visits they get the more often they’re reminded that they’ve done something wrong and don’t move on from that mindset,” explained probation officer Gary Rogers.
Studies have shown that factors leading a juvenile to act out in society can include abuse, their value system, family background, education or attitude toward school. These concepts help in case planning and diversion methods. But there are limited options in the area for programs that can help these kids stay on a positive path. The limitations pose a frustration to those who work with the juveniles, as they have programs, but lack of funding or manpower to implement them. “We are funded through the courts, not the state, so funds are limited and we’re not able to acquire grant funds,” explained Hall.
A study conducted by Georgetown University on the subject of juvenile justice programs shows that the best way to reduce recidivism, which for Navajo County is at approximately 22 percent, is to provide services close to home, and help the youth create a better connection to family, school, community and pro-social peers. While there is no lack of evidence to support the theory, the resources are, for the most part, unavailable in the county. There are very few foster care families in the county so if juveniles need to enter into foster care, they are taken elsewhere in the state, making it a challenge to involve the entire family in counseling or for visits to take place. “We do utilize the Community Counseling Center and they’re really helpful, but it’s not enough,” said Hall.
With limited resources, each detention officer takes on the role of not only a safe keeper, but also a positive role model. Each of the four pods at the juvenile detention center can house up to eight juveniles and each of the cells faces a common room manned by a detention officer around the clock.
Each detention officer has the responsibility of providing encouragement and support so that the youth who are housed there can make the most of their time there. “They have four hours of school, an hour of leisure time and another of exercise,” explained Salas, as he outlined some of the activities the youth take part in during a given day. The juveniles are required to be respectful to the officers and those incarcerated with them, and to maintain their cell and common room.
“We have a program where they can earn play money to buy items they may want, like better shampoo, conditioner or maybe toothpaste other than the generic brand they get when they come in,” Salas said. For those who go beyond what is required by exhibiting a positive attitude and helping others, there is the opportunity to earn extra play money to buy treats such as a candy bar.
Salas explained that they have minimal staff so implementing new programs is a challenge, but they welcome help from the community. “We have a local church organization that is going to come in and offer a non-denominational service, so we’re looking forward to that,” he said.
Although each person who would have contact with the juveniles would have to go through a careful screening and pass a background check, the rewards could be significant, not only to the kids incarcerated, but also to the community.
“The officers put heart and soul into this. They balance security with compassion because these kids can’t be treated as an adult. They’re still developing, so we don’t judge them or punish them while they’re here. What we lack is money, time and resources,” commented Salas.
Individuals or organizations interested in volunteering to serve the youth at the detention center with a program that would provide positive life skills for the youth there are asked to call the Navajo County Juvenile Probation Center at (928) 524-4258.