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County tackles jail operation costs

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bed space remains in short supply at Bernalillo County’s chronically overcrowded jail.

But there’s one thing the County Commission has plenty of – frustration.

That was perfectly clear Tuesday as commissioners intensely debated how to rein in the cost of running the county’s massive jail system.

The commission narrowly agreed to pour another $3.3 million into shipping inmates to other jails throughout New Mexico and Texas, a move intended to help reduce the population housed in Bernalillo County. But no one sounded happy about it.

“I know we cannot continue doing things this way,” Commissioner Art De La Cruz said.

He joined fellow Democrats Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley in favor of approving the money. Opposed were Wayne Johnson and Lonnie Talbert, both Republicans.

“This is a 20-year problem,” Johnson said. “We can’t paper over the hole anymore.”

There was one hint at optimism Tuesday: Local judges have agreed to a series of new measures that could help reduce the jail population, according to Deputy County Manager Tom Swisstack and Elizabeth Simpson, an attorney hired last fall to help the county work on the jail population.

Judges have agreed to:

• Allow inmates released into community custody to accumulate “good time,” shortening their sentences. Some inmates have refused to participate in the program because they can’t get credit for good behavior.

• Consider putting inmates at the end of their sentence into the community custody program. Someone serving a 360-day sentence, then, might be eligible to do the last 90 days under supervised house-arrest through CCP.

• Broaden the pool of people eligible for community custody.

Swisstack estimated the new agreements could help reduce the jail population by 180 inmates.

The county jail population averaged 2,418 inmates last year. The design capacity is 2,236 inmates.

Johnson and De La Cruz on Tuesday said it’s time for the county to take a close look at whether it’s getting its money’s worth out of about $3.7 million in annual funding for court initiatives intended to ease the jail population.

“I’m not seeing any results,” De La Cruz said.

Tuesday’s $3.3 million means the county is on track to spend about $10 million this year on inmate transfers.

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