Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misidentified one of the two types of ammunition found during an Albuquerque police stop of two teenagers. It has been updated.
Just after midnight on Aug. 15, Albuquerque police on a call at Louisiana and Montgomery heard gunfire in the distance. Officers raced to a nearby neighborhood where they stopped a red 1992 Honda they said was traveling erratically.
Inside the car, police found two 17-year-olds, two handguns, .45 caliber and 9 mm ammunition, multiple packages of cannabis, oxycodone and more than $1,700 in cash. Two bullet casings were recovered in the roadway.
But when an Albuquerque Police Department officer called the state Juvenile Probation and Parole Office to notify the agency of APD’s intent to charge the teens and take them to the county’s juvenile detention center, the probation officer on the phone told police they weren’t “a high enough risk to book,” according to an APD report.
“Without Juvenile Probation’s blessing to make an arrest, the juveniles were released to their parents,” stated an APD alert obtained by the Journal.
The police report said the teens would be charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute and unlawful possession of a handgun. It wasn’t clear what happened next. State authorities wouldn’t discuss the case, citing confidentiality of juvenile records.
The Aug. 15 incident illustrates how law enforcement in Bernalillo County now must treat juvenile suspects they want to arrest and detain. Since October, law enforcement officers have been required to phone an on-call juvenile probation officer for permission to take them to the Bernalillo County Youth Services Center, a 78-bed juvenile detention facility in the North Valley.
The decision to detain is based on a standardized risk assessment that considers in part the crime and juvenile’s criminal history, but sometimes exceptions may be made.
The new practice concerns some officers, who are already facing the trend of increasing violent crime among juveniles.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the more serious charges,” said Diana Garcia, who oversees the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s prosecutions in Children’s Court. “Our caseload is predominately felonies at this point, with most of them being serious violent felonies. We’re seeing kids who are committing violent felonies in groups. And we’re seeing guns all over the place. And I don’t know why.”
In dealing with juvenile offenders in New Mexico and nationwide, detention and even criminal prosecution is frowned upon except in the most serious cases.
More often than not, teens in trouble with the law are sent before booking to detention alternatives and then placed in community diversionary programs by the state Children Youth and Families Department.
One of CYFD’s goals is trying to prevent “juveniles from entering the juvenile justice system,” Brian Blalock, CYFD cabinet secretary, told a legislative committee last year.
Booking a juvenile and detaining him or her in a secure facility to stress the importance of a criminal action is akin to the “old scared straight mentality, that if you show them the inside of a detention center that they’re never going to do it again,” Costales said.
Though overall juvenile crime has declined in recent years along with the juvenile population in New Mexico, the incidence of violent crime among youths, especially in the Albuquerque area, hasn’t, say police and prosecutors.
“Kids have always been very resourceful about getting guns,” Garcia said. “I think maybe part of it in the past is that kids possessed handguns but weren’t necessarily using them. We’re just seeing more cases that where they are using them, whether it be shooting or threatening or whatever.”
Over the past 18 months, two of the more egregious juvenile cases involving firearms or dangerous drugs have been referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico for prosecution. Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez said the transfer in part helps ensure violent juveniles remain in custody pending prosecution.
U.S. Attorney for New Mexico John C. Anderson recently told the Journal, “I think what a lot of members of the community are seeing are younger folks and teenagers driving a disproportionate amount of the violent crime that we are seeing in the city and frankly across the state. And that’s certainly a troubling trend to me especially when it’s in the context of gang activity.”
State juvenile justice officials say there has been a recent increase in the number of youths who have committed battery on a household member, and over the past two years “battery” has ranked at the top of youth offenses for which police have been summoned. Just four years ago, the top crime was shoplifting.
In the past, law enforcement officials arresting juveniles at the scene of a crime in Bernalillo County would book them into the detention center, complete their paperwork and leave.
The question of release pending further court proceedings was left up to detention and juvenile probation officials, who administered the risk assessment and found other custody arrangements if the teen didn’t score high enough to be detained.
Under the change, law enforcement officers in Bernalillo County phone an on-call juvenile probation officer who takes information and conducts the risk assessment at that time.
If the assessment score is not high enough to warrant booking the juveniles, the officers themselves sometimes must track down parents or find other detention alternatives, say police and prosecutors interviewed.
The inability to readily book and detain a teen offender has some Albuquerque area law enforcement officers discouraged.
“It happens all the time. And I will tell you that it is extremely frustrating and it just continues the cycle of criminal activity in this community without holding individuals accountable,” said Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association. “We go out there every day to protect the streets of Albuquerque. We make a good arrest, we get two kids with drugs and guns off the street, for a second, and then we’re told we can’t incarcerate them so we’re just going to let them go.”
During the Aug. 15 stop of the two 17-year-olds, police were advised the two teenagers didn’t have prior criminal records and their mothers eventually took custody of them.
One mother came to the scene; the other showed up at the hospital where her son was taken because of intoxication, an APD report states.
The incident was the topic of an internal APD Significant Incident Alert obtained by the Journal.
The alert stated it wasn’t approved for public release and shouldn’t be sent to the APD’s public information officer but City Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair was copied on the alert.
Up until last October, Bernalillo County was the only county in the state that continued to arrest and book and leave the initial detention question to other agencies.
Costales said he hasn’t heard of any complaints about the new practice, which he said was endorsed by the APD and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.
He said officers are now saved from having “to take a trip from one side of town to the detention center just for a kid that wasn’t going to be detained anyway.”
Law enforcement officers can still ask for overrides from a probation supervisor if they get turned down initially. Youths not detained are put on a “fast track” to ensure juvenile probation officers meet with the teens’ families to see if services or other help is needed, Costales said.
The APOA’s Willoughby counters, “All the new change did is provide an avenue for kids to stack up those (risk assessment) points until they have enough points to get incarcerated. They absolutely need to be taken out of society for a little while and maybe given an opportunity to see what being incarcerated means so they can potentially make better choices in the future. Now, there’s absolutely no consequence for the child’s behavior.”
Probation officials wouldn’t say how many points are required for detention under the tool.
Moreover, APD officers don’t have the time to consider where a youth should be placed if they aren’t detained, Willoughby told the Journal.
“It should not fall on the shoulders of the police. Yet again, police officers are holding the bag.”
Assault and battery
Data provided to the Journal by CYFD shows for the fiscal year that ended June 30, about 61% of those screened through the risk assessment tool in Bernalillo County have racked up enough points, either because of the seriousness of the offense or prior criminal history, to warrant pre-trial detention. That’s higher than the 54% detained statewide.
Costales said offenders who aren’t detained are released to their parents, a relative or even a coach.
Another alternative in Albuquerque is a shelter run by New Day Youth & Family Services.
Steve Johnson, executive director of New Day, said he has had no difficulties with youths brought to his facility who might have been placed in the juvenile detention center under past practices.
“Here’s my belief about it right now, and some people would even argue with this, there may be some young people who are so dangerous that they need to be separated, and the (risk assessment instruments) are supposed to sort that out,” Johnson said. “But basically the research shows the deeper you get into the juvenile justice system, the more likely you are to come back.”
APOA’s Willoughby said youth shelters aren’t always an attractive option for parents.
“We’ve had situations where a child has been caught maybe dealing drugs in the high school and the parents call the cops, and they (the youths) get into an altercation with the parents and they don’t have the points to get incarcerated. The parents don’t want them to go to a shelter, so they have to go right back home with Mom and Dad, even in domestic violence cases.”