ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bernalillo County commissioners today will confront two sharply different paths for addressing their chronically overcrowded jail system.
Option No. 1: Turn it over to the Sheriff’s Office, putting one elected official in charge of the lockup.
Option No. 2: Expand a court-run program that diverts some offenders from jail by placing them under supervision in the community as they await trial.
The ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, though they’re presented as separate proposals on today’s County Commission agenda.
The first idea, turning the jail over to the sheriff, doesn’t appear to have support from a majority of commissioners, though skeptics haven’t ruled it out entirely.
The jail-diversion program, meanwhile, has support from a crucial constituency: the chief judges of the Second Judicial District and Metropolitan Court.
Under that plan, the county would pay for 100 additional GPS bracelets and the hiring of extra court staff to do background checks and track defendants around the clock — with a goal of reducing the jail population by some 20 percent in 10 months.
It’s a familiar idea. The county has tried repeatedly to expand similar programs in the past only to see them run aground amid skepticism from some judges, who didn’t want the county second-guessing decisions about who ought to be in jail.
But the latest proposal is based on a request from the Second Judicial District Court, which oversees a Pre-Trial Services Division that supervises defendants awaiting trial. Having the court, not the county, in charge seems to be the key.
Chief Metro Judge Judith Nakamura is on board.
“A lot of folks end up waiting in jail because we don’t have the ability to supervise them,” Nakamura said Monday. “This will allow us to release people under strict supervision.”
Greg Ireland, court executive officer for the Second Judicial District, said judges intend to approach the expansion cautiously, and there will be strict risk assessments completed to avoid the release of dangerous offenders.
“We really think it increases safety to the community,” he said. “When people are arrested, we are monitoring them with a full-court press until they are adjudicated in court. … These are proven best practices, and we think they will work.”
Bernalillo County’s local jail system is at the center of a long-running civil-rights lawsuit in federal court, first filed in 1995. In January, the county said the jail held 2,630 inmates, well above its 2,236-bed capacity.
The population is now hovering around 2,500 inmates, Deputy County Manager Tom Swisstack said, thanks to several initiatives, such as working with pro-tem judges to tackle a backlog of cases.
The Second Judicial District already operates a pre-trial supervision program that connects offenders with substance-abuse treatment, counseling and other services while they await trial. Supporters say it allows defendants to keep their jobs and remain productive members of society. Swisstack said he wasn’t sure how many participants are in that program now.
The county jail itself also has run a “community custody” program that’s similar to house arrest, with inmates wearing ankle bracelets for monitoring.
The measure before commissioners today calls for $1.5 million in funding for an “alternatives to incarceration” program through the court’s Pre-Trial Services. It’s based largely on a draft proposal from Second Judicial District Court.
That document outlines how the program could work:
♦ The county would pay for 100 Global Positioning System units for defendants who are charged with domestic violence or otherwise considered “high risk” but would benefit from counseling or other parts of community supervision.
Surveillance officers would track the defendants 24 hours a day to ensure they don’t enter “exclusion zones” established by the court to protect victims.
The victims would help shape the zones outlining where defendants can or cannot go. Four staff members would have laptops to handle the tracking.
♦ More staffers would be hired to help Metropolitan Court judges who see defendants for their first appearance on a felony charge. The goal is to decide whether the offender is eligible for a jail-diversion program at that point, rather than at a later hearing.
As for putting the sheriff in charge, Sheriff Dan Houston has said doing so could ease decision making, improve coordination with law enforcement and make the lines of accountability clear.
To address overcrowding, possibilities include making temporary use of old, empty jails, such as the one Downtown, Houston has said, and some low-level offenders may not have to be taken to jail at all if it’s not necessary for them to be there.
Kyle Hartsock, president of the Bernalillo County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said the union opposes moving the jail under Houston’s control. He took issue with Houston’s leadership within the Sheriff’s Department.
And, Hartsock added, “running a police department and a jail are completely separate. I don’t think one translates well to the other.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal