St. Johns, Arizona, calls itself “the town of friendly neighbors.” With a population of around 3,500 people and a surrounding landscape of ponderosa pine forests and rolling hills peppered with cattle, the quaint town is as bucolic and all-American as it gets.
It’s why Michael Latham moved here with his wife and kids back in 2009.
“My wife’s mom is from St. Johns, and we would come here for family things,” says Latham, who was raised in the Mormon Church and studied law at Brigham Young University in Utah.
He had been working at a law firm in Phoenix but wanted to spend more time in the courtroom. So after they moved to St. Johns, he ran for office and told his wife, “We’ll either win, or we’ll move again.”
They won, and, in 2014 he became Apache County’s Superior Court judge. Latham had no specific vision for his new role, aside from wanting to try new approaches to old problems.
“In small counties and towns, a lot of times things are being done the way they’re being done, because that’s how they’ve always been done,” he told me.
At the top of his list was reforming the town’s underutilized juvenile detention facility.
Latham knew that the facility, which was built to hold up to 11 kids, cost the county over $1.2 million a year even though it sat empty for six to eight weeks at a time.
“When you average 1.7 kids a day, those costs just stop making sense,” he said. “In a small county like this, you just don’t have the numbers and you don’t ever want to make the numbers.”
Apache County wasn’t the only place with empty juvenile halls. Nearby rural counties like Navajo and Gila saw only one or two kids a day held in detention. It was unclear to Latham whether police were doing fewer referrals or whether kids simply weren’t getting into trouble as much.
The more he looked into it, the more he thought St. Johns resembled the many communities, both rural and urban, across Arizona and the West, where juvenile crime was decreasing even as public opinion about harsh punishment had started to shift.
In the 1980s, America faced growing rates of both adult and juvenile violence. In the decade between 1980 and 1990, arrests for offenses like murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault rose by 64 percent, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute. The nationwide juvenile arrest rate for murder almost tripled during that time, from five to 14 young people out of every 100,000.
There were several reasons, sociologists thought, for the spike in violence, including an increase in the use of handguns as well as the growth of illegal drug markets, especially for crack cocaine.
And the future was expected to be even worse: The 1990s had already been dubbed the “Superpredator Era.”
The term “superpredator,” coined by Princeton University sociology professor John Dilulio, referred to “a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless, that he can kill, rape, maim, without giving it a second thought.”
Speaking to the press in 1995, Dilulio predicted that the number of juveniles in U.S. custody would rise exponentially over the next few decades; these young cold-blooded criminals, he claimed, “fear neither the stigma of arrest nor the pain of imprisonment.”
Dilulio’s critics slammed his warnings as racist and partisan. And Dilulio turned out to be wrong: Even though the population of 10- to 17-year-olds continued to grow, violent crime in America began to drop starting in 1994, falling to its lowest point in two decades. Dilulio later publicly apologized for his grim predictions, saying his approach was misdirected.
But the damage had been done.
Sensationalist media coverage of children committing gruesome crimes frightened Americans, and by the late 1990s, nearly every state in the country had begun treating minors like adults, even sentencing them to life without parole.
By the year 2000, more than 100,000 young people — mainly Black and brown teenagers — were in custody in the U.S., and larger detention facilities were being built to accommodate them, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
A Different Approach to Corrections
That was around the time Victor Chávez began work as a corrections officer for the Navajo County adult corrections system in Arizona. Chávez defies the corrections officer stereotype: He has a mellow, friendly demeanor and was a mentor for the local Boys & Girls Club. He sought to reduce the incarcerated population through a program called Intensive Supervised Probation, which allows convicted offenders to rejoin their communities while they are monitored by someone like Chávez.
Some people, he explained, do well on probation and go on to have successful lives.
“But when you have to revoke them, then they end up having to go (back) to prison,” he said, his voice cracking a bit. “Sometimes that gets to you. And it does to me. As I get older, I have more empathy for people and their families.”
By 2015, Chávez had a family of his own. And he was ready for something different; he wanted to provide more hands-on mentorship. One day, he got a call from Paul Hancock, a former fellow corrections officer who was now director of Juvenile Court Services for Apache County.
“He was like, ‘Victor, we’re going to do something,’” he said. “‘Hopefully, it’s going to be really awesome. And I’d like you to come be a part of it.’”
Hancock told Chávez that the Apache County juvenile detention facility, located about an hour and a half from where he worked in Navajo County, was closing. The new judge, Michael Latham, had some ideas for how to use the space, and he wanted forward-looking people like Chávez to be part of a social experiment.
The Loft Opens
Two years after Chávez spoke to Hancock, the Loft Legacy Teen Center in St. Johns celebrated its grand opening in August 2017. A YouTube video of that day shows Judge Latham talking to a group of about 30 excited teenagers.
“Hopefully, this is something that will be here for decades,” he said to loud cheers from the kids. Standing over to one side, Chávez and Hancock, the two former corrections officers-turned-mentors, smiled. They were dressed in casual clothing — T-shirts, jeans, baseball caps — just like the teens in the audience.
The Loft occupies the old juvenile facility building on Cleveland Street, but it looks very different now. Repurposed and cleaned up, it resembles an industrial loft space: The white walls are finished with wood and aluminum, and there are couches and beanbag chairs in every room.
In one area, teenagers can study and use free internet from 2:30 to 5 p.m. during the week. There’s even a fully equipped recording studio, and a music space with a keyboard and electric guitars. The setup was inspired by The Rock, a teen center started in Phoenix by the legendary rocker Alice Cooper.
“We started off with one pool table, but it was wildly popular,” Hancock said as we watched the kids trickle in after their high school let out. “And the great thing about pool is that it’s like a social game.
“You can’t play pool and not talk to somebody. So we have kids that don’t know each other at the high school, but they know each other really well here.”
For Hannah Wilkinson, The Loft, which opened in her freshman year, became a refuge. Her parents were strict, so she spent most afternoons during high school here. It made such a difference that, after graduating from high school, she became a mentor.
The job basically requires her to hang out with younger kids and model good behavior. Sometimes, she has to act as the disciplinarian, even though, at 19, she looks as young as the teens she supervises.
“Some kids will just come up and start talking,” Wilkinson told me. “If there’s a life in danger or something illegal going on, I have to report it. I’ve only had to do that once, thankfully.”
One of the Loft’s regulars is a 17-year-old I’ll call William. (I’ve agreed to not use his real name because St. Johns is a small town and what he tells me could impact his life.)
“I’m one of the biggest nerds you’ll ever find in this town,” he joked when we met, without turning away from the X-Box. William, who dropped out of school after eighth grade, comes to The Loft religiously to play video games. Like Wilkinson, he lacks an ideal relationship with his parents, and sometimes he comes in just to talk with her.
As a socially alienated teenager who’s not into sports, William has often felt like he doesn’t belong.
“Most of the time, if you talk to certain people, you feel like you’re getting judged or something. But when you talk to them here, they don’t immediately jump to one conclusion,” he said.
William’s mentors are working with the high school counselor, trying to help him return to school.
While he chatted with Wilkinson in the main room, I talked to Richard Gwinn at the reception desk.
“I’d like to think we are part of a bigger shift,” Gwinn, a former sheriff’s deputy, told me, explaining how The Loft works to keep young people out of the criminal justice system through truancy prevention and mentorship programs.
“And I think it has worked, because we’ve had a tremendous reduction in the number of referrals.”
The year The Loft opened, juvenile arrests in Apache County dropped by 55 percent. And the center operates at roughly a quarter of the amount it cost the county to run the juvenile facility.
Still, the drop in juvenile arrests is due to more than a local shift in resources. In 2011, the state established a detention-screening tool that determines whether a juvenile should be put in detention in the first place.
“If a judge or a probation officer gets upset with a kid and the response is detention, the tool kind of re-guided them and said, ‘No, this kid really isn’t a public risk,’” said Joseph Kelroy, the director of the Juvenile Justice Services Division at the Arizona Supreme Court.
Other states are attempting more ambitious reforms.
California is shutting down its Division of Juvenile Justice altogether; by July 2023, its three remaining facilities will close and California will replace it with a new Department of Youth and Community Restoration, which promises rehabilitation along with educational and job training.
California’s shift amounts to a massive undertaking. But The Loft has shown that it’s possible to move to a care-first model even in a rural county in a politically conservative state. If the teen center continues to partner with local organizations to address illegal activity and minimize arrests, the mentors say, youth detention facilities will eventually become obsolete.
During my visit this spring, I was invited to attend graduation and watch as 66 local teens received their diplomas. About half of the kids came through The Loft, part of the first high school class that has had the youth center as a resource since freshman year.
Backstage, Hancock and Chávez chat with William, who is there to film the ceremony and stream it online for everyone who couldn’t attend due to the pandemic.
While they wait for the ceremony to start, Hancock and Chávez urge William to go back to school, as they often do. “Just get your high school diploma,” Hancock says. “Then you could study video or animation. Wouldn’t you like to graduate like the kids here today?”
William looks shyly at the ground. He seems unaffected by their words, perhaps a little confused. But as long as he spends time at The Loft, Hancock and Chávez will keep encouraging him. Try sports, they’ll say, or video or music — whatever.
The graduates’ names are called and they throw their caps in the air as Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” plays over the loudspeakers.
William checks in with Chávez, who says he’s good to go home.
“See you on Monday!” Chávez shouts, as William makes his way out of the auditorium.
This story, originally published in High Country News is reprinted here through the Solutions Journalism Exchange, part of the Solutions Journalism Network’s programs to spread rigorous reporting about responses to problems. Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Tucson. Email her at email@example.com. This story was created in collaboration with the 70 Million podcast. An audio version is available at 70millionpod.com.