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Editorial: The metro jail: Why less is costing all of us more

The number of inmates at Bernalillo County’s Metropolitan Detention Center has plummeted, going from 2,600 in 2012 to 1,200 inmates last month.

Despite the massive drop in population, the cost to run the sprawling facility on the West Side has gone up, from $57 million in 2012 to more than $61 million last year.

That has raised eyebrows among some county leaders and taxpayers who foot the bill.

MDC officials acknowledge the paradox but say it’s driven, in large part, by the types of inmates the jail is seeing these days. They say they’re dealing with an increase in methamphetamine usage and a prevalence of severely mentally ill patients – so they’re having to spend more on such things as drug rehabilitation and psychiatric treatment. “The mental health care and the medical care at this facility has not decreased” despite the drop in the general inmate population, says Jessie Phelps, the health services administrator for Correct Care Solutions, which provides care to inmates.

Of course there are other factors that have kept MDC costs up. The jail doesn’t have the corrections officers it needs to fully staff the facility, and so it is frequently having to rely on costly overtime to cover shifts. Corrections officers are often having to work four double shifts in a week, and jail officials speculate that’s one of the reasons that MDC’s Family Medical Leave Act rates are off the charts. Of course, when one officer is out on FMLA, another officer has to cover the shift, likely through overtime, so the cycle continues.

MDC says its also spending more on training for officers to curb excessive use-of-force incidents. It spent $1.7 million last year. Given the jail’s history, that’s probably money well spent. The detention center has been rocked by inmate abuse scandals in recent years, recently settling three high-profile cases for a combined $1.1 million.

Finally, while the jail could technically consolidate the inmates it has into fewer pods, jail officials have decided not to do that for safety reasons. They have instead opted to house about 40 inmates per 64-person pods.

Like all taxpayers, we want government to run as efficiently as possible, and that includes MDC. But we also want the jail to do right by its inmates and its employees, and new MDC Chief Greg Rees appears to be working hard to strike that important balance.

Make no mistake, there is still work to be done. The county needs to work hard to fill its vacant corrections officer positions so that someday – hopefully in the not too distant future – its officers won’t have to work multiple double shifts in a week. And this should help to keep costs down. The county must also move quickly to investigate, discipline and terminate corrections officers who cross the line, particularly when it comes to excessive-use-of-force and rape cases.

It doesn’t instill public confidence when these cases linger for months and even years, while taxpayers continue to pay the suspended officer’s salary. Take controversial jail supervisor Eric Allen as an example. He has been on paid administrative leave since January 2016 over excessive-use-of-force complaints. The county has initiated the process to fire him, but he still gets paid and his shifts have to be covered.

MDC and the county have taken steps to address these problems. Commissioners voted in December to reclassify dozens of corrections officer term positions to permanent full-time positions. County Manager Julie Morgas Baca told commissioners the reclassifications were needed because it’s hard to recruit corrections officers when they know they won’t be permanent employees.

On the excessive-force front, it has been difficult to hold corrections officers accountable even when there are credible witnesses and video showing outrageous behavior. The accused officer often says he was merely following his training, and fellow officers back up the person accused. Rees assured Journal editors and reporters recently that excuse will no longer fly. To that end, a new use-of-force policy has been implemented, one emphasizing conflict-avoidance techniques. MDC officials said in January every officer has been trained on the new use-of-force training and classes were recorded.

“If someone violates rules, they’re going to be terminated,” Rees told the Journal.

As for the increasingly difficult inmates, there’s probably not much the jail can do except try to provide them the help they need while they’re in custody. Just as the community is trying to ramp-up behavioral health, law enforcement and judicial systems, MDC must continue to look for best practices and efficiencies that balance services and safety with bottom lines for taxpayers, the public and the people it serves.

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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