The Santa Cruz County Juvenile Detention Center in Nogales.

Taking action on what officials said has been an “on and off” topic of conversation for the past four years, the County Board of Supervisors finally approved a plan this week to house adolescents from Cochise County at the local juvenile detention center as part of a cost-saving measure for both counties.

The agreement – which is scheduled to run from Jan. 1, 2021 to June 30, 2023 – will provide Santa Cruz County with some much-needed income from its under-occupied detention center, while giving Cochise the chance to repurpose its facility.

The final details were hashed out last Friday and the pact was formally adopted by the Santa Cruz County government on Tuesday. It’s now awaiting final approval from the Cochise County Board of Supervisors.

“It took four years to negotiate this because this is a mind shift on how to deal with juveniles,” Santa Cruz Supervisor Bruce Bracker said during Tuesday’s board meeting. “There were a lot of people that really needed to feel comfortable with this, so that the interests of the kids were taken into account.”

The intergovernmental agreement states that each county will be allowed to use 50 percent of the facility’s capacity and will be responsible for the expenses associated with those rights.

County Manager Jennifer St. John said that Santa Cruz County currently has an annual budget of about $1.2 million for the juvenile detention center, plus $75,000 for medical costs associated with the facility.

And although Cochise is looking at additional expenses for transporting its juveniles to an outside detention center, the cost-sharing arrangement would still save both counties about $650,000 each per year, St. John said.

The juvenile detention center in Nogales opened in 2011 with a 32-bed capacity. However, St. John said that current staffing levels only allow for eight beds to be filled at a time. Those beds will be divided to accommodate four individuals from each county at a time.

The two counties held a video and telephonic study session on Aug. 27 to discuss the final details of the collaboration. Participants included members of the courts, juvenile detention center, school superintendent’s offices, boards of supervisors and other county personnel.

During that meeting, Cochise County Superior Court Judge Timothy Dickerson raised concerns about the possibility of both counties needing greater capacity.

Supervisor Manuel Ruiz, citing zero Santa Cruz inmates in juvenile detention as of Aug. 27, suggested that Cochise could use more than its equal share of beds if there were enough available at the given moment.

St. John told the NI that expanding the facility’s overall capacity past the eight beds would be difficult, as it would require an extended planning period, additional money, and more time for the proper screening and training of new hires.

Cochise officials added that Pinal County had also shown interest in housing additional adolescents if the Santa Cruz County facility were to reach its limit.

“We do not want to consistently direct juveniles to Pinal, so we would definitely explore an increase in capacity before consistently sending our juveniles to Pinal,” St. John told the NI on Wednesday. “However, we don’t anticipate our current capacity being a problem at all.”

‘Very good fit’

Supervisor Peggy Judd of Cochise County also worried about the added transportation costs in taking the kids from county to county for incarceration, as well as having them appear for court hearings and medical appointments while they’re serving time.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Fink explained that the juvenile detention facility in Nogales is equipped with a camera and monitor that allows the juvenile inmates to attend court hearings remotely.

“We’re doing remote hearings even though they’re just downstairs from us,” Fink said about Santa Cruz County court operations during the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s easily available to the folks in your court, to your judges and staff, as well.”

Fink added that he had also taken into account the socioeconomic, educational and cultural characteristics of the youth in both counties, and said they were quite similar to one another.

“We see a big difference when we get kids from Maricopa County and Phoenix and other places, so it’s also a very good fit from that perspective, as well,” he said, adding that if the two counties moved forward with the agreement, the Cochise juveniles “are going to mix in really well with our kids and staff.”

A bigger concern for the school superintendents in both counties was about the funding for providing educational services at the facility, as well as a transition plan for the Cochise kids to smoothly integrate back into their schools.

Cochise Superintendent Jacqui Clay pointed out that the agreement did not include any reference to education.

“We’re concerned about the student, their education, their re-entry and their transition back into our school system,” Clay said.

As for ensuring equal funding for the youth from both counties, St. John said during the board’s Tuesday meeting that she was actively working with the local County Superintendent’s Office to settle the terms for both parties.

The Cochise County Board of Supervisors is set to vote on the agreement during its Sept. 15 meeting.

“This is a substantial cost-savings for both counties and for the taxpayers, and I think it’s a plus for the juveniles that we’re detaining, so it’s a win-win-win,” Bracker said.

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