Juvenile Justice board back

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Socorro youth have a higher than average rate of being caught with weapons and getting into fights, according to the 2010 New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey. The same survey shows Socorro children are more likely to suffer from abuse and neglect than children in other counties. And in 2010, Socorro County had the fourth highest percentage of children living in poverty, 39 percent compared to 29 percent for the rest of New Mexico and 20 percent nationally.

Yet, Socorro hasn’t been pulling together to address these and other critical problems — until now.

“We have a lot of services in this county, but not good coordination,” said state legislator and Socorro Juvenile Justice Board Cochairman Don Tripp. “We want people to be talking together.”

The Socorro Juvenile Justice Board is doing a lot of talking as they make plans together to tackle these problems.

The all-volunteer board is composed of leaders from all sectors of the community, including city and county government, churches, law enforcement, juvenile justice, schools and business. The board’s mission is to work together to keep teens out of trouble, and when they do break the law, think of more effective ways of dealing with them than simply jailing them, Tripp said.

New Coordinator

Originally organized in 2011, the board was not meeting consistently until about 11 months ago, said Kirsten Keller, the board’s new coordinator.

Tripp said part of the problem was achieving a quorum at the meetings. Until recently only the person named as a delegate could attend board meetings. For example, if the district attorney himself couldn’t attend, no one else from the DA’s office could attend in his place. There is a proposed change to the by-laws to allow designates from each entity, so having a minimum number of members required for a quorum at the meetings should be easier.

And there is $25,000 in New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department funding to pay for a strategic plan as well as a coordinator’s salary. The city of Socorro is the fiscal agent, Keller said. State statutes now require all counties to establish juvenile justice boards.

Thanks to Keller, board members now have more time to focus on their goals.

“I’m kind of like a fancy secretary,” she said. “The coordinator is paid to compile and send out the minutes. I also do stuff like having memoranda of understanding sent out to the new board members and having the city councilors approve the new board. The new board will be presented to the city council in October.”

The first step was to find out exactly what challenges teens and their families are facing in Socorro. DFL Associates, Inc., an Albuquerque-based consulting company, was hired to research and write the board’s strategic plan this June.

The plan helped the board identify key goals for the next few years, including improving coordination among the different agencies that support teens and their families, reducing truancy, re-establishing a teen court, continuing with educational efforts, such as the Maze of Life activity for high school juniors, and making the Socorro Youth Center a one-stop shop for teens on probation, Keller said.

Resource Guide

Keller said she is working with the board to develop a more comprehensive resource guide for Socorro families and teens so information about all services from every sector of the community can be accessed in one place.

Chronic Truancy Solutions

Truancy is strongly associated with criminal behavior.

“Eighty percent of people in prisons are not high school graduates,” Tripp said.

The strategic plan calls for schools, the district attorney, juvenile probation offices and community groups to work together with teens and their families to decrease truancy in the county’s secondary schools by 10 percent by the end of 2014.

One idea is to hold parents more accountable for their children’s school attendance, perhaps by working with the state income support division and the housing authority to link benefits to attendance according to the plan. Another is to increase the number of effective truancy prevention programs by 10 percent by 2014 and work with schools to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions by 10 percent.

Teen Court

Tripp served as a judge on the Metro Teen Court in Valencia County, and liked the way peer pressure worked and the kinds of consequences offenders got compared to the standard justice system.

“Teen courts are a lot more effective than juvenile court,” he said. “So many processes done behind the scenes. Now you have to appear before your peers. It’s not just a paper filed away. There’s more attention to first offenses, so something actually happens,” he said.

Tripp said Kim Ortiz, a Socorro teacher now working in Magdalena, had been organizing Socorro County’s teen court. The board is waiting for the new Socorro school superintendent to appoint an education delegate who will continue Ortiz’s work.