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Editorial: County Needs Buy-In Before Jail Shopping

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Deputy Bernalillo County Manager Tom Swisstack has an intriguing social-services-focused idea for reducing the population at the perennially overcrowded Metropolitan Detention Center while at the same time tackling recidivism among low-risk/high-needs inmates.

It deserves consideration — first and foremost by the principals responsible for developing and administering it.

Unfortunately, Swisstack and the county administration have a game plan that gets funding from the Legislature first, approval from the County Commission second, and input from the judges who would be responsible for the inmates in it third. And that puts money way ahead of viability.

Those same judges are already responsible for the jail’s Community Custody Program, which has the bench approve inmates for monitoring via ankle bracelet instead of in a cell in the $90 million lockup on the West Mesa.

Back in 2006 (pre-Swisstack), jail officials claimed the CCP rolls could be doubled, with more than 300 additional inmates who should be made eligible for ankle bracelets. (There are just 205 inmates in CCP now). Metropolitan Court Chief Judge Judith Nakamura said then that while a few — not hundreds — good CCP candidates could have slipped through the cracks, the county should proceed cautiously.

Instead, in 2010 the head of the CCP program was indicted on felony bribery charges for taking money to get people into the program and keep them there. Last year he pleaded guilty. In between, judges put the program on hold.

So it is little wonder those same judges are skeptical of a new jail program the county says will free up 750 cots, especially when they learn about it from a Journal reporter and not a county official. And there is no question those judges need to have major input from the get-go if this program is, as Swisstack says, not going to compromise public safety.

Swisstack has an extensive background in corrections and knows what he’s talking about — he has made a similar program, which emphasizes monitoring in the community and appropriate social services, work for reducing the population and recidivism at the county’s juvenile lockup.

It costs $52 a day to house an inmate at MDC, $14 million to house 750 of them out of state and $30 million to build another pod to get crowding under control. So it may be a win-win for all involved if in fact there are hundreds of nonviolent jail frequent fliers who simply need a detox, some affordable housing, some education or job skills rather than 364 days of three hots and a cot. Swisstack’s plan to renovate the vacant Downtown jail with a $5 million legislative appropriation and get at least some of those low-risk/high-needs inmates on the right track could be the best long-term deal in town.

But if there’s no buy-in from the men and women who will be held responsible if things go wrong, then it has to be no deal at all.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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