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Jail a costly, unnecessary problem

On May 18, the Journal opined that “the county needs a data-driven approach to managing the jail’s population.” I couldn’t agree more.

Fortunately, there’s no lack of data or analysis, just a lack of effective action resulting in the reduction of the Metropolitan Detention Center inmate population.

First, it’s important to understand the role of a county jail – which is far different from that of a state prison. Jails are short-term incarceration facilities whose primary mission is to serve the criminal justice system. Ideally, a jail should hold only those accused of a crime and sentenced misdemeanants.

As of mid-April the MDC population was made up of 2 percent probation violators with new misdemeanor charges, 9 percent sentenced misdemeanor offenders, 9 percent sentenced felony offenders, 10 percent technical felony probation violators, 11 percent probation violators with new felony charges, 19 percent pretrial misdemeanor offenders and 40 percent pretrial felony offenders.

Over half (51 percent) of the population was made up of pretrial felons, if you include probation violators with new felony charges. When sentenced felons are included, that number rises to 60 percent.

If we’re serious about reducing jail overcrowding, the place to start is in the jail’s felony population. While probation violators that have managed to rack up another felony charge may constitute a danger to the community and belong in jail, I would argue that MDC is not the place for convicted felons. Those inmates belong in a state prison designed for felons and not in a county jail.

Simply moving convicted felons from MDC to the appropriate state facility would result in a reduction of at least 250 inmates.

That leaves the largest single block of MDC inmates – pretrial felons.

Remember, these are individuals who have been accused of a felony, not convicted of one. They have rights under the U.S. Constitution – one of which is the right to a speedy trial – and take up about 1,000 beds.

According to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) January 2013 report, 49 percent of felony cases in Large Urban Counties had progressed from arrest to final disposition within 90 days. In Bernalillo County and the 2nd Judicial District, only 2 percent of felonies had reached final disposition within 90 days and only 39 percent had reached final disposition within a full year. Other Large Urban Counties had disposed of 88 percent of their felony cases within a year.

In short, the 2nd Judicial District moves at an almost glacial pace when compared to similar districts in other states.

Both the NCSC and the Institute for Law and Policy Planning determined that MDC overcrowding is a direct result of slow case flow through the 2nd Judicial District.

The ILPP concludes, “Bernalillo County over-uses its jail resource by failing to manage the Criminal Justice System work and case flow.” From the NCSC, “Model Time Standards for criminal cases suggest that felony cases should be disposed of more quickly than they now are in Bernalillo County.”

Inevitably, cries of inadequate funding go up whenever there is pressure on the criminal justice system to improve efficiency. The NCSC report addresses that, too – “the inadequacy of staffing levels may be magnified because the management of felony case progress in the 2nd Judicial District needs improvement. If felony case flow management were improved, personnel resource needs would be a less salient consideration.”

Recently, Judge James Parker ordered the county to create a plan to meet very specific population goals by Sept. 1. On its own, the only way the county can achieve these goals is to expand the number of available beds by either shipping inmates out or building a new facility.

Both options will cost residents of Bernalillo County millions – millions that wouldn’t have to be spent if our criminal justice system partners would move accused felons from arrest to final disposition in a timely manner.

Bernalillo County taxpayers should not have to pay millions of dollars to ship inmates or build bigger jails simply because our criminal justice system moves too slowly and is reluctant to make significant systemic changes to improve efficiency.

Call it “finger pointing” if you like; I call it using data to identify a significant, costly and unnecessary problem.