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Prisons or public schools? What will NM decide?

States slower to embrace comprehensive criminal justice reform are facing a series of difficult choices, and everyone loses. New Mexico prisons are running out of space. According to N.M. Sentencing Commission’s projections, within the next decade there will not be enough beds for all expected male and female inmates to be housed in correctional facilities.

Put simply, more people are entering the system than are being released. And officials have noted that current state prisons – many built after the infamous 1980 prison riot – are not always conducive to the kind of programming that helps ensure individuals stay out of the system once released. Furthermore, antiquated state prisons are estimated to (have) over $300 million in deferred maintenance costs.

To make matters worse, New Mexico is currently tied for the highest child poverty rate in the country – according to a recent estimate, roughly 30 percent of children are impoverished. And, the violent crime rate in Albuquerque, where a quarter of the state’s population lives, rose by more than 15 percent in 2016. Given these stats, it’s perhaps not surprising New Mexico was designated the worst state in the country for overall child well-being in 2018.

In light of such combined factors, state Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, recently summarized the dilemma state legislators now face: “Do we want to build more prisons, or do we want to build more public schools?”

No policy maker should ever face such a binary option. Yet, similar circumstances in states such as Oklahoma and Idaho are leading to the same question and, in some cases, finally pushing policy makers to act. Now the No. 1 incarcerator in the world, Oklahoma passed several reform measures in 2018. Yet some believe these reforms don’t do enough to stop the problem. Meanwhile, Idaho officials learned this summer that they would need to spend $500 million to make more space for a growing correctional population, with taxpayers already paying for hundreds of people to be held in a private facility in Texas due to inadequate space.

Without reform, state policy makers can expect a future where they continue to funnel more and more money into their criminal justice systems while critical areas like education and health care have their funding further reduced to pay for it…. And, in the process of paying for incarceration, states often divert funds from community-based educational, substance abuse or mental health resources that might lower individuals’ risk of committing crime. This begets a self-fulfilling prophecy: When there’s little funding for preventative resources or proper implementation, decision-makers’ beliefs come true and the cycle of crime and incarceration continues….

U.S. News ranks (New Mexico) as No. 50 among all states for public safety due its comparatively high property and violent crime rates. It’s also ranked No. 50 among all states for education.

… In 2007, Texas legislators were staring down the barrel of $2 billion in additional costs within five years if they didn’t change their ways. Instead, they invested their resources in more effective alternatives to incarceration, expanded treatment opportunities for those struggling with substance abuse and capped parole caseloads to ensure more effective supervision in the community. Now, instead of investing billions of dollars into new facilities, Texas is closing them, and crime is decreasing. … Other states have followed suit. South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana are already seeing the benefits of embracing comprehensive reform. And many more are on their way.

… For states slow to embrace these changes, it’s time to let the taxpayers decide – prisons or public schools?

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