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Panel OKs corrections transparency bill

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bill aimed at creating an independent oversight office and increasing transparency for the New Mexico Corrections Department is moving forward at the Roundhouse.

New Mexico, a state with one of the highest numbers of privatized prisons, is also one of the few states without a Corrections Department oversight mechanism, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

Maestas is sponsoring the Corrections Ombudsman Act along with Reps. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, and Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque.

The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday via a 10-1 vote, with House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, voting against it. It now heads to the House Appropriations Committee, which could scrutinize its estimated $250,000 recurring financial impact.

“Any prison or jail around the world, if left unattended, will house corruption,” attorney Matthew Coyte testified during the hearing. “And if you shine light on that, your corrupt system, your corruption is minimized, you can never eradicate it entirely.”

Groups such as the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico spoke in favor of the bill, along with former Corrections Department employees.

However, the bill didn’t come without criticism from the Corrections Department, as agency Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero said she opposes the bill in its current form.

Tafoya Lucero said the bill doesn’t match correction ombudsman laws in other states, which she said “is an objective party that investigates concerns and works to resolve them.”

In its current form, the bill creates an office housed within the Legislative Finance Committee that would determine the Corrections Department’s funding and she said this is a conflict that would negate its objectivity.

The ombudsman would be better housed in the State Auditor’s Office or the Attorney General’s Office, she said, and the Corrections Department would likely need its own office to manage the information the ombudsman would require.

“I believe this bill as written will create an extensive burden, essentially requiring the continuous production of discovery in perpetuity,” Tafoya Lucero said.

Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said he supports providing more legislative oversight to the Corrections Department because it’s also the agency that poses the most risk to the state in terms of lawsuits. He said he would like bill sponsors to sit down with Tafoya Lucero to address some of the concerns about the legislation.

“I think we need to be careful that we don’t create a position where the corrections department now has two bosses,” Nibert said.