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Lawyers: Texas is too far to send MDC inmates

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Bernalillo County jail inmates sent to a lockup in Texas to ease overcrowding regularly miss court and evaluation dates, and have limited to no communication with their attorneys, according to the state public defender’s office – an unforeseen consequence that defense attorneys say is clogging up the judicial system and unnecessarily costing taxpayers.

More than 300 Metropolitan Detention Center inmates are sitting in a jail near Houston as they serve out their sentences or await trial. The jail in Livingston, Texas, more than 850 miles from Albuquerque, received the lion’s share of inmates shipped out of MDC to relieve overcrowding.

MDC officials, however, said that they’ve visited each facility and talked to inmates, and they say none of them has complained about their access to attorneys or missing court dates.

They and public defenders agree that the jail officials are in a difficult predicament – having to comply with a federal court order that mandated the jail bring inmate population back to its design capacity of 2,236. The population averaged around 2,500 before the inmates were shipped out.

In a meeting with public defenders, jail officials and a Bernalillo County attorney late last month, the parties brainstormed ideas for how to reduce the number of inmates booked into MDC in the first place, and they established a few other ways to make sure inmates are able to communicate with their public defenders and make it to court.

Those ideas included increasing the number of inmates in the Community Custody Program, which would reduce the number of incarcerated criminals, allowing public defenders to notify MDC in advance if their client needs to stay in Bernalillo County for an upcoming court date.

The New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association has also asked that judges make an effort to lower the bonds of inmates booked into the jail, a proposal they said would allow more inmates to bond out of jail and reduce the inmate population.

Technical difficulties have delayed the installation of a video-conferencing system that was supposed to be installed soon between the two jails, MDC Chief Ramon Rustin said.

Cynthia Leos, an assistant public defender in the department’s felony division, put out a call recently to fellow public defenders to share their experiences guiding their clients incarcerated in the Texas jail through the judicial process. She got dozens of responses in 24 hours.

“It’s common that there is little to no ability for attorneys to meet with their clients to discuss their cases,” Leos said in an interview. “(The) end result is that cases are barely plodding forward in a system that is extremely slow to begin with. This is bad for the judicial system, bad for New Mexico taxpayers, and terrible for our clients and their families.”

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