Editorial: It makes humane, fiscal sense to release nonviolent inmates

New Mexico’s prison population has dipped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the combination of an executive order that led to the early release of 532 inmates since April 2020 and a slowdown in jury trials in courts around the state.

In fact, the number of inmates in New Mexico prisons is at its lowest level in the past 20 years, with 5,662 inmates currently incarcerated – a 74% occupancy rate in a system that just a few years ago was concerned about its ability to have enough beds to keep pace with a growing number of prisoners. Pre-pandemic occupancy was 87%, with 7,645 inmates.

“What you see across the nation is a policy shift around corrections that refocuses on reduction of population, and the treatment and opportunities for successful reintegration,” said Eric Harrison, a Corrections spokesman. “You see this national change and our state is sort of shifting policy in that same direction.” That is a good thing – with some public safety caveats.

Lalita Moskowitz of the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union says permanent inmate population reduction is essential and the ACLU is urging the state to reduce mass incarceration in general, advocating for the continuation of executive order measures that allow the early release of some inmates.

The ACLU also wants to stop people being sent back to prison for technical probation/parole violations that don’t include commission of a crime. Indeed, there probably is no good reason to send an inmate back for missing one appointment with a parole officer. But half a dozen in a row? Or testing positive for meth or heroin, especially if that occurs more than once? Probably good indicators that programs for that inmate aren’t working.

At the end of the day, the question before a judge exercising his or her discretion is to make a considered decision whether the parolee or probationer is a public safety threat – or, in fact, amenable to and willing to undergo treatment and other programs to turn their life around.

It’s also worth noting the Corrections Department has an important tool in its statutory toolbox unrelated to the pandemic.

There is a law on the books that allows early release with 12 months of parole eligibility by placing an inmate in a community-based setting under the adult community corrections fund. Wisely, inmates with a firearm offense aren’t eligible for the program – and inmates with other clearly violent behaviors shouldn’t be considered, either. An inmate’s conduct while in the system should also be a consideration.

Recidivism has been a problem that won’t be fixed by letting people out of jail. In fiscal 2017, half the inmates were back in prison within three years of release, according to a legislative analysis. And the staff of the New Mexico Sentencing Commission told lawmakers in 2018 that a larger share of N.M.’s inmates were in for violent crimes and drug offenses than in the rest of the country, while fewer were incarcerated for property crime and public order offenses.

Meanwhile, cost per prisoner in the state system was between $104 and $120 a day, so early release of non-violent offenders amenable to rehabilitation is good not just for the person, but also for society and the taxpayer.

It presumably will be up to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to determine whether the executive order continues, with or without modification. But it should be done in consultation with Corrections officials, prosecutors and law enforcement – along with such groups as the ACLU advocating for prisoners.

One place to start: A follow-up on the 532 inmates who got early release. Back in jail? On the street? Or working and contributing to society? It’s a ready-made case study we shouldn’t ignore.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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