State financial woes and increased mandatory sentences for some offenses are contributing to overcrowding in the Curry County Adult Detention Center, said Detention Center Administrator Don Burdine and County Manager Geneva Cooper.
In turn, overcrowding at the jail is contributing to a county budget shortfall and cutting into its indigent care fund, they said.
Cooper said the county spent $125,000 it hadn’t budgeted this year to house Curry County prisoners in jails outside the county to relieve overcrowding and because the detention center doesn’t have enough isolation space for high-risk prisoners, she said.
The cost of feeding the prisoners has increased by $28,000 over last year and could increase another $22,000 by the end of the fiscal year, she said.
When medical expenses at the detention center “went through the roof” last year, the county hired two nurse practitioners to work at the jail, cutting down on prisoners’ outside trips to the doctor. But the county charges indigent prisoners’ medical expenses to its indigent care fund. The increased number of cases, plus the cost of prescriptions, which under new legislation can be charged to the fund, will eventually become a burden on the fund, she said.
Cooper said the county has bought a building at 824 N. Main St. where it will build dormitories for work release prisoners and some isolation cells.
Burdine said for the upcoming year he is asking for a budget increase for the detention center of approximately $300,000. Approximately $100,000 of that would cover the cost of feeding prisoners; about $200,000 would cover the cost of housing them out of county, he said.
Burdine said the detention center, at 801 Mitchell St., was designed to house 208. It currently houses 209, but it is the distribution of those prisoners that causes problems, he said.
“The center is a pod-type design. There are seven ‘pods,’ some with 32 beds, some with 24 beds, with four bunks to a cell. Currently, there are six pods for men and one for women, with eight isolation cells,” he said.
“Isolation cells are now generally occupied by people with illnesses or mental health issues that require them to be separated. We have one pod for disciplinary lock down. With women, we have to vacate an isolation cell or hold them in the booking area, which was not designed for that,” he said.
Because of the pod-type design, prisoners in the “isolation” pod often are rewarded with extra space, while in another pod, excess low- to medium-security prisoners are sleeping on mattresses on the floor, he explained.
Burdine said half the jail’s current population are inmates with probation violations, DWI convictions or convictions for battery on a household member. These low- to medium-security prisoners make up the bulk of the jail’s overcrowded conditions, he said.
“In the last 10-to-15 years, we’ve seen an increase in mandated sentences for DWIs and domestic violence. People who used to be held overnight, then released, are now mandated to spend months in a facility at a cost to the taxpayer of $65 a day,” he said.
“It might not be politically correct to say this, but we ought to ask if keeping an alcoholic in jail for 30 days on a DWI charge, then just releasing him, is having the effect we desire,” he said.
Burdine said the increased number of probation violators in the jail is an outgrowth of a reduced number of probation officers in New Mexico. Overburdened p.o.s are sending more low- to medium-security prisoners to jail, rather than working with them, Burdine said.
Cooper said that in May 2002 the State Corrections Department informed the county that, due to a lack of manpower, its Probation and Parole Division would stop handling misdemeanor offenders sentenced by magistrate court. The county hired a probation officer to work with misdemeanor officers in December 2002, but, in the meantime, many of those defendants went to jail, she said.
Probation officers might not be so quick to send probation violators to county jails if the state had to pay the counties for the prisoners’ incarceration, Burdine said.
Alone among seven Southern and Southwestern states surveyed by the New Mexico Association of Counties — including Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana — New Mexico does not pay its counties for housing probation violators, said Sam Montoya, the NMAC’s executive director.
The cost of housing the state prisoners is a problem for counties across the state, Montoya said.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Brett Carter said he disagrees with some of Burdine’s assertions about overcrowding.
The legislature was responding to public demand when it mandated sentences for repeat DWI and domestic violence offenders. Proper handling of those cases requires a trade off, he said.
“Given the mandatory sentencing guidelines, there will be some overcrowding, but if we sit back and don’t do anything they’re likely to re-offend,” he said.
Also, some of the overcrowding is because violent offenders in Curry County are staying in jail — and that’s a good thing, he said.
“When we came into office one of our promises was that violent offenders, like those involved in drive-by shootings, would stay incarcerated,” he said.
But Carter agreed with Burdine about the negative effects of the state’s cutting probation officers.
“With fewer probation officers to supervise felony offenders there’s less time for misdemeanor offenders. That’s tragic, because the crime rate is going up,” he said.