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Sandoval County moves to dismiss inmate release request

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Sandoval County attorney who last week asked a judge to order the release of all nonviolent and misdemeanor offenders from the county jail has filed a motion to dismiss the request, saying the county has reduced its jail population to an acceptable level using other avenues.

When County Attorney Robin Hammer filed the petition last week, 208 detainees were housed at the Sandoval County Detention Center, but by Monday evening, that number had been reduced to 130, largely by moving inmates to other facilities. The lower number allows the center to space detainees farther apart, in compliance with health mandates intended to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

A hearing set for Tuesday morning on the petition was canceled, and the case has been dismissed. A spokeswoman for the city of Rio Rancho, which had raised concerns about the proposal, said the city is satisfied with the outcome and will work with the county to mitigate risks at the jail.

In an interview, Hammer said she doesn’t believe the reduction would have been possible without the petition, which not only sought the release of some offenders but also suggested that the jail not accept any new inmates on nonviolent or misdemeanor charges. Reducing the jail’s population amid the coronavirus outbreak was critical to protect the health of inmates, staff and the community at large, she said.

Sandoval County commissioners said Tuesday that the commission was not involved in organizing the request, and commission Chairman David Heil said that while he would not support the release of inmates who had not met their obligations, he believes the petition raised an important issue and led to a safer jail environment.

“I personally am not upset with her filing it,” he said. “I think she brought an issue to bear that had to be dealt with in a timely manner.”

Commissioner Katherine Bruch said that although she philosophically supports plans to reduce prison populations, she does not believe this was the right way to go about it and that the commission should have been involved. She said the proposal was not well-received among her constituents, who expressed concerns to her. She said she wishes some of the alternatives that the county ultimately pursued had been investigated before the petition was filed.

Hammer said Tuesday that she filed the petition on behalf of the county and that she does not believe jail numbers would be at their current level if it had not been filed.

“It facilitated conversations that may have not been possible previously,” she said.

In the motion to dismiss, Hammer wrote that the county had lowered its population because the Bureau of Indian Affairs moved around 40 detainees to other facilities, 10 detainees were moved back to Valencia County, 10 were sent to the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center because they had active warrants in Albuquerque, 18 detainees saw judges impose release conditions or completed their sentences. Sandoval County is hoping to keep the population below 120 men and 48 women, which would allow each inmate to live in a separate cell until the public health crisis is over. The center has not had any known cases of coronavirus.

“In New Mexico, we abolished the death penalty for murderers,” Hammer wrote in an email. ” … We should not have our local jails implement a potential death sentence through spreading a deadly virus to persons who are in custody for no driver’s license or other minor crimes.”

Jurisdictions around the country are taking steps to try to reduce jail populations and daily arrest numbers in light of the outbreak as they fear the virus would spread quickly in prisons and jails. The state Criminal Defense Lawyers Association sent a letter to the governor Monday asking her to initiate fast-track paroles of nonviolent offenders and those who are medically high-risk, and that she grant executive clemency or commutation of sentences to release anyone serving time for drug-related crimes.

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