Improving Juvenile Probation to Support Girls in New Mexico

Posted July 9, 2018
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young Latina girl in New Mexico

Moti­vat­ed by data, the pro­ba­tion depart­ment in Bernalil­lo Coun­ty, New Mex­i­co, is embrac­ing a fun­da­men­tal cul­ture change – look­ing to girls and young women as well as deeply root­ed com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions as the best sources for infor­ma­tion about what they need.

Although Bernalil­lo Coun­ty, which is home to Albu­querque and is a long­time par­tic­i­pant in the Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive®, cre­at­ed a girls’ pro­ba­tion unit in 2003 with the express pur­pose of improv­ing out­comes for girls, the department’s recent data analy­ses revealed con­sis­tent and strik­ing gen­der dis­pro­por­tion­al­i­ty in deten­tion. Sev­en­ty-eight per­cent of girls detained in 2014 were low risk, com­pared to 55% of boys. Boys’ length of stay decreased 22% from 2012 to 2014, while girls’ length of stay actu­al­ly increased 12%. Deten­tion for girls based on pro­ba­tion vio­la­tions was also on the rise: Pro­ba­tion vio­la­tions account­ed for 41% of deten­tion admis­sions for girls in 2014, up from 24% in 2012. While pro­ba­tion staff had thought they were doing the right thing for girls, the data showed otherwise.

Sys­tem lead­ers in Albu­querque knew they want­ed to turn things around for girls. For guid­ance, they turned to the Young Women’s Free­dom Cen­ter in San Fran­cis­co, a region­al advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion led by girls and young women since 1993. The Young Women’s Free­dom Cen­ter rein­forced that pro­ba­tion needs to be about rela­tion­ships, not pow­er and con­trol — about con­nect­ing with the com­mu­ni­ty to find nat­ur­al sup­ports and bonds, not just treat­ment,” says Jeanne Mas­ter­son, asso­ciate deputy direc­tor for juve­nile jus­tice ser­vices with the New Mex­i­co Depart­mentof Chil­dren, Youth and Families.

The pro­ba­tion depart­ment start­ed by cre­at­ing a new girls’ task force to rethink the department’s approach to case man­age­ment, lis­ten­ing to girls and fam­i­lies through focus groups and dig­ging deep­er into data. A key mem­ber of the task force is Young Women Unit­ed, a local orga­ni­za­tion led by girls and young women that focus­es on the inter­sec­tions of girls’ dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties, includ­ing race and eth­nic­i­ty, cul­ture, gen­der and sexuality.

In her work with Bernalil­lo Coun­ty pro­ba­tion, Young Women Unit­ed Pol­i­cy Direc­tor Deni­cia Cade­na has been remind­ing the depart­ment that a nar­row focus on hold­ing girls account­able doesn’t help build rela­tion­ships with girls or the com­mu­ni­ty and the pro­ba­tion sys­tem needs more than just one option for a response” to girls. Pro­ba­tion doesn’t have all the tools,” Cade­na says. Turn­ing to the com­mu­ni­ty can help iden­ti­fy how oth­er groups can con­tribute their exper­tise. Cade­na says she is already see­ing pro­ba­tion offi­cers increase their efforts to be cham­pi­ons and advo­cates for girls.

Mas­ter­son says she and her staff are work­ing to unlock the true pas­sions of girls and rec­og­nize that they are not always going to need a ser­vice. Not every kid needs a men­tal health assess­ment. Maybe she just needs a guitar.”

Relat­ed resource:
Read the Casey Foundation’s new report, Trans­form­ing Juve­nile Pro­ba­tion: A Vision for Get­ting It Right, to learn about the Foundation’s vision for pro­ba­tion reform.

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