Nov. 28 – Merging management of state prisons and county jails is not a solution for New Mexico “at this time,” according to a task force set up by the Legislature to study the issue.
While such an agreement might someday make sense, the state has many challenges to overcome before such a consolidation would be feasible, the group said in a report released Monday.
Two legislative monuments in 2022 called for the task force to be convened to study and discuss the possibility of merging management of the state’s 25 prisons and 11 jails.
The group, made up of 18 officials from New Mexico’s criminal justice system, including Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero and Administrative Office of Court Director Arthur Pepin, met four times in the past year and will make recommendations to the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday.
The report provides a snapshot of the current issues facing prisons and prisons and makes 29 recommendations on how to address them.
The results may come as a surprise to some.
For example, publicly available statistics show an “overall decline” in both property and violent crime in New Mexico between 2018 and 2020, according to the report.
The state’s prison population has also declined — by as much as 18 percent in 2020 due to pandemic-related changes — although the report acknowledges that more study of these trends is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn.
New Mexico is among a small number of states that have historically held as many or more people in prisons as prisons, compared to other states, the group’s research found.
The state ranked third in the country in 2019, with 83 percent of prison inmates made up of unconvicted people awaiting trial on current charges or being held on other grounds.
New Mexico has 9,224 prison beds statewide, and the cost of maintaining that availability varies based on how many beds are used, the report said.
In fiscal 2022, an average of 55 percent of available prison beds were used on any given day, at an average daily cost of $186 per bed.
According to the report, the state spent $282.5 million operating county jails in fiscal 2022, and costs are expected to increase by $33 million in fiscal 2023.
The state’s prison system has a capacity of 7,645 beds and costs have increased from $135 per bed per day in FY2021 to an estimated $150 per bed per day in FY2022.
The state corrections agency’s operating budget for fiscal 2022 was nearly $364 million. The system held about 5,500 inmates as of Monday.
The lack of staff to fill positions in the state jails and jails has emerged as one of the state’s greatest challenges when it comes to running the system.
Six county jails with more than 50 percent vacant staff, according to data from August 2022. Meanwhile, Correctional Services officials reported a total of 29.2 percent vacancies in late June, which also noted the need for more training for correctional officers, according to the report.
According to the report, behavioral health professionals are in particularly high demand — especially in more rural communities.
About two in five inmates have a history of mental illness; a rate twice that for mental illness in the adult population as a whole, the report said.
The task force recommends officials develop a plan to attract more qualified professionals, provide more support to crisis centers and explore the possibility of additional regional mental health centers.
New Mexico has an inpatient mental health treatment facility.
The group’s report states that housing must be recognized as a critical component of criminal justice rehabilitation and policymakers should support efforts to address housing insecurity.
New Mexico’s vast open spaces and still-developing Internet infrastructure were other issues the group identified as complicating the combination of jail and jail systems.
“Resource sharing between jails and prisons may be more viable when facilities are in close proximity,” the task force concluded. “For a large state like New Mexico, the division of resources between incarceration and correction could present additional obstacles.”