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Potential cost of ban on private prisons draws fire

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Legislation seeking to bring an end to private prisons in New Mexico is heading to a key House budget committee after a potentially expensive amendment was added by the House Judiciary Committee.

Several lawmakers expressed concerns that the Private Detention Facility Moratorium Act was too “green” as written and doesn’t have a proper transition plan in place to lead New Mexico away from private prisons. There are currently four private state prisons in New Mexico.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, along with four other lawmakers, and would essentially make private prisons illegal.

Over 20 people spoke in favor of the bill during a public comment period. It ultimately passed by a 7-5 vote after a motion to table the bill failed.

“I believe this bill is not directionally wrong, but I believe it is green,” said House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia. “It is not ready to go forward, and putting something forward out of (this committee) that we all agree is problematic is troubling to me.”

One of the amendments approved by the committee would provide assistance for workers affected by the switch from private to public facilities. Specifically, it states any county or neighboring county that had 20 or more workers displaced or laid off because of the switch could get financial aid.

The amendment also creates several funds and a community advisory board that would provide assistance to the workers and communities with private prisons, Rep. Zachary Cook, R-Ruidoso, said.

Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, said she supports the bill’s intent but doesn’t think New Mexico is “quite there yet,” due largely to the legislation’s potential cost.

“So my worry is that we have more inmates than prison beds, and we’re potentially giving the Corrections Department an impossible problem to continue housing these folks without anywhere to put them,” Cadena said.

She also said changes to state sentencing laws would allow the Corrections Department to safely let some people out of prison, reducing the number of beds needed, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said he’d like to see New Mexico moving away from private prisons, but said the bill could face tough sledding in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, which plays a key role in crafting the state’s annual spending bill.

“Here’s what I’m worried about – I think it gets to appropriations, and it’s going to stop right there,” Ely said. “I don’t think we’re going to have the kind of funds that we’re talking about to be able to do this.”