New Mexico task force: Do not combine prison and jail administration
The state legislature convened the study to discuss the possibility of combining administration of the state's 25 jails and 11 prisons
By Phaedra Haywood
The Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, N.M. — Combining the administration of state prisons and county jails is not a solution for New Mexico "at this time," according to a task force created by the Legislature to study the issue.
While such an arrangement might one day make sense, the state has many challenges to address before such a consolidation would be feasible, the group said in a report released Monday.
Two 2022 legislative memorials called for the task force to be convened to study and discuss the possibility of combining administration of the state's 25 jails and 11 prisons.
The group, made up of 18 officials from New Mexico's criminal justice system, including Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero and Administrative Office of the Court executive director Arthur Pepin, met four times in the past year and will deliver recommendations Tuesday to the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee.
The report includes a snapshot of the current issues facing jails and prisons and makes 29 recommendations about how to address them.
The findings may come as a surprise to some.
For example, publicly available statistics show "overall declines" in both property and violent crime in New Mexico between 2018 and 2020, according to the report.
The state's prison population also has been falling — dropping a full 18 percent in 2020 due to pandemic-related changes — though the report acknowledges more study of these trends is needed before any solid conclusions can be drawn.
New Mexico is among a small number of states which historically has held as many or more people in jails as in prisons compared to other states, according to the group's research.
The state ranked third in the country in 2019, with 83 percent of the jail population comprised of people who have not been convicted and are awaiting court action on a current charge, or being held for other reasons.
New Mexico has 9,224 jail beds statewide and the cost of maintaining that availability varies, depending on how many beds are being used, the report said.
In the 2022 fiscal year, an average of 55 percent of available jail beds were used on any given day, at an average daily cost of $186 per bed.
The state spent $282.5 million operating county jails in the 2022 fiscal year, according to the report, and the cost is expected to increase by $33 million in fiscal year 2023.
The state's prison system has a 7,645-bed capacity and cost increased from $135 per bed per day in fiscal year 2021 to an estimated $150 per bed per day in fiscal year 2022.
The state Correction Department's operating budget was just under $364 million in fiscal year 2022. The system held about 5,500 inmates as of Monday.
A lack of people to fill jobs within the state's prisons and jails emerged as one of the state's greatest challenges when it comes to running the system.
Six county detention centers having more than 50 percent staff vacancies, according to August 2022 data. Meanwhile, Corrections Department officials reported a 29.2 percent staff vacancy overall at the end of June, according to the report, which also identified the need for more training for correctional employees.
Behavioral health care providers are particularly in demand — especially in more rural communities — according to the report.
About two in five people who are incarcerated have a history of mental illness; a rate two times higher than that for mental illness in the overall adult population, the report says.
The task force recommends officials develop a plan to attract more skilled professionals, provide more support for crisis centers and study the possibility of more regional mental health centers.
New Mexico has one inpatient mental health treatment facility.
The group's report says housing needs to be recognized as a critical component of criminal justice rehabilitation and policy makers should support efforts to address housing insecurity.
New Mexico's wide open spaces and still developing internet infrastructure were other issues the group identified as making it more difficult to combine prison and jail systems.
"Sharing resources between jails and prisons can be more feasible when the facilities are in close proximity," the task force concluded. "For a large state like New Mexico, sharing resources among detention and corrections may have added obstacles."
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