In Arizona, a radical change in juvenile detention

High Country News
2 min readSep 20, 2021

How a rural town transformed a juvenile facility into a safe space for teens.

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.

When Michael Latham became judge of Apache County, Arizona, in 2014, one of his priorities was to reinvent the county’s underutilized youth detention facility. Amy S. Martin / 70 Million.

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.”

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