A federal magistrate judge has ordered all five Bernalillo County commissioners into court next month for settlement talks aimed at resolving 18 years of litigation over conditions inside the jail system.
And if that’s not motivation enough for a deal, Senior U.S. District Judge James A. Parker issued an order of his own in the case. He wants the county to explain why it shouldn’t be required to give him a written plan by July 1 for tackling the overcrowded conditions in jail cells.
The pair of orders — one filed Thursday, the other Friday — come after county commissioners, just last week, deadlocked on whether to relieve overcrowding in the Metropolitan Detention Center by shipping inmates to other jails in New Mexico or Texas. The proposal to transfer inmates failed on a 2-2 vote, with one commissioner absent.
But everyone will be at the table in two weeks. U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan C. Torgerson issued an order Thursday requiring the five commissioners, county attorneys and representatives for the inmates to attend a settlement conference the morning of May 2.
Settlement talks are confidential, and it could be a long day.
“The Court has set aside the entire day for this settlement conference, and participants should be prepared to work through the noon hour and into the evening, if necessary,” Torgerson said in the order.
County Attorney Randy Autio said the commissioners aren’t typically required to attend settlement conferences.
He said he couldn’t address the overcrowding suit specifically because settlement talks are confidential, “but we will cooperate fully and attempt to resolve any issues we can.”
Zach Ives, an attorney for inmates, had no comment Friday.
Parker, meanwhile, ordered the county — he didn’t specify whether it has to be commissioners themselves — to attend a May 22 hearing. The county must explain why it shouldn’t be forced to present a “written plan to cease the triple celling of inmates” and take other steps to reduce crowding.
The county would also have to present to the court a plan for keeping inmates who’ve committed acts of violence separate from those who haven’t.
“The health and safety of inmates at the MDC can be significantly improved by better management practices,” Parker said in his order.
The local jail system has been chronically overcrowded for decades. A federal civil-rights lawsuit was filed in 1995 and continues today.
The MDC has a design capacity of 2,236 inmates, though the population has hovered around 2,500 recently.
Earlier this month, the commission debated a proposal to authorize $1.4 million through the end of June to send 300 or so inmates to other jails in New Mexico or Texas.
The proposal failed on a tie vote. Commissioners Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley supported the inmate transfers. Art De La Cruz and Wayne Johnson voted “no,” and Lonnie Talbert was absent.
The county has tried repeatedly over the years to ease overcrowding in the jail system. Those efforts have included building the new MDC about 10 years ago to replace the old Downtown jail and expanding a court-run program last year that diverts some offenders from jail by placing them under supervision in the community as they await trial.
The county spends some $63 million a year operating the MDC.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal