Crime is out of control in New Mexico. Property crimes in Albuquerque are the highest in the nation, and violent crimes are increasing at an alarming rate. Crime, particularly related to drug abuse, is rampant in communities throughout the state. It seems like every night brings news of some horrible crime in our communities. But, ironically, we know how to effectively fight this problem, and we have the ability to fix it. The question is whether, in this legislative session, we have the will to fix it.
Over the past several months I have talked to persons involved in every part of the criminal justice/public safety community across the political spectrum. There is a consensus on how to solve the problem: address the entire criminal justice system, from early childhood intervention, to law enforcement, to prosecution and defense, to courts and corrections, and to behavioral health. Simply adding more police officers and prosecutors and increasing criminal penalties will not solve the problem.
For example, corrections, although rarely talked about, is suffering under an incredible strain. At the Sandoval County Detention Center, where almost 500 dangerous prisoners are kept, the starting salary for corrections officers is $13.25/hour. Not surprisingly, they are having a problem both hiring and keeping officers. Even the jail itself is in very poor condition. We will need substantial resources just to make it secure. These substandard jails exist all over the state.
But the biggest and most challenging problem is our mental health care system and lack of substance abuse treatment facilities. Our behavioral health care system has been decimated. People with, or at risk for, mental illness and substance abuse often have nowhere to go. As a result MDC, the jail west of Albuquerque, is now the largest provider of mental health therapy in the state. Once an inmate is released, both the individual and the community are now at risk.
The citizens of New Mexico need more and better paid police officers, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, court staff, corrections officers, pre-trial service providers, and early childhood intervention, particularly at schools and at behavioral health and substance-abuse treatment centers.
All of this costs money, but we have it. There is more than $20 billion in the state’s permanent funds – money the state receives from royalties, fees and sales. Using only one-half percent of those funds annually and without reducing the money in those funds, $100 million each year will be available to establish a criminal justice and public safety fund to significantly reduce crime in New Mexico.
This is the right thing to do. For example, what if a family has a large amount of money in savings? The parents are saving this money for their future grandchildren. But their kids are starving, not safe, and the house is falling down. Of course parents would willingly spend some of the interest on this money to solve the problem in front of them.
If public safety is truly a priority for our communities – which it should be – then our budget needs to reflect that reality. Crime affects everything – the safety of our citizens, the reputation of our state and economic development. The permanent funds are for our future generations. However, in failing to address this crisis now, we are already affecting future generations by allowing crime to gain a devastating foothold and by permitting the continued downward spiral of our economy.
It is time to solve this problem. The challenge is to spend the public’s money wisely and efficiently. Through audits and constant monitoring this could be done. It is a challenge that we should be up to. Let’s do this. Ask your legislators to support this concept or come up with another solution.