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Jail crowding serious, fixable

Most of us realize we live in a country with the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized nation in the world. But until recently we did not know that Bernalillo County has 68 percent more people in jail than the national average.

That’s right, central New Mexico is an embarrassing pocket of unjustifiable mass incarceration. Another interesting statistic: we have 25 percent fewer people on probation or parole than the national average.

These statistics, and others like them, tell a very interesting story for anyone willing to listen, but for those who run Albuquerque’s jail it is an unpleasant thing to hear.

Perhaps this is why they fired the expert whose task it was to tell the tale, accusing him of being “abrasive.”

The Albuquerque Journal reported on this drama last week as it described how Bernalillo County originally hired a national jail expert to look into the overcrowding issues plaguing the Metropolitan Detention Center. Apparently, having spent $43,000 of a $50,000 contract, the county decided the services of the expert were no longer needed.

Luckily for the taxpayers who funded this study, the author published his findings anyway. If it wasn’t for his commitment, we may never have known the true scale of our problem as compared to the nation, or indeed the world.

If you look at the report, and another one dated May 21, 2013, (published on Bernalillo County’s own website), you will find some very disturbing things indeed.

Apparently we have hundreds of non-violent, non-dangerous citizens waiting for their trial in MDC on bonds they cannot afford. This may be sensible if you are a bondsman looking to profit from the system, or a Texas jail, making over $80 per day for every inmate shipped in due to the overcrowding, but it makes no sense for the citizens of Bernalillo County.

Then there is the forgotten constitutional nicety that pretrial detainees are innocent until proven guilty.

Apparently 82 percent of MDC’s inmates are either un-sentenced or waiting for a probation violation hearing. These people are presumed innocent, yet they spend months, sometimes years, in jail waiting for their case to resolve.

The government’s own expert writes there are 500-700 inmates in MDC who for the most part would not be in jail “almost anywhere else in the nation.” And remember we are a nation with an extraordinarily high rate of incarceration already.

A full 28 percent of the jail’s population is being held on misdemeanors.

This translates to punishment for the vast majority of inmates before they are ever found guilty, and in many cases these individuals are never found guilty. The report written in May 2013 discovered that four out of 10 cases sampled did not result in a conviction.

This is nothing new. It has been going on for over 20 years at an ever increasing rate.

We have built a new jail that is so large it can be described as a “super jail”. We built a new metropolitan courthouse to process the large volume of people arrested in the county. Each project was mired in controversy, costing taxpayers millions of dollars and resulting in at least one high-profile politician going to prison for corruption.

We are now looking to repeat this same mistake by building an even larger jail as a method of saving the costs associated with shipping inmates to Texas.

This must stop.

So what is the solution? Paradoxically, it makes more sense for the county to post the bonds of every nonviolent offender.

Within a few months this would save the county millions of dollars and would immediately cure the overcrowding problems that have dogged the system for years.

Another approach lies in the hands of the judges. Stop setting bonds on every person who comes through your courtroom. Follow the Constitution and release people who are not a threat to the community.

Only then can we cease to be 68 percent above the national average in a truly expensive and embarrassing statistical category.


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