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Learning from how Bernalillo County reduced its jail population

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Leaders from six states traveled to Albuquerque last week to learn about Bernalillo County’s criminal justice initiatives, including those focused on reducing the county’s jail population.

Elected officials and administrative staff traveled from North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Louisiana, and other counties in New Mexico for a two-day event hosted in conjunction with the National Association of Counties. On the itinerary was a tour of the county jail, an observation of a county meeting, and presentations from Bernalillo County officials and nonprofit organizations.

“Counties across the country are looking for criminal justice strategies that make systems more efficient and reduce inappropriate incarceration, particularly the number of people with mental health disorders who end up in jail,” said County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins in a statement.

“Here in Bernalillo County, we have been cooperating with our partners and stakeholders across multiple systems, using data-driven strategies, to achieve concrete results.”

A report provided by the county to the Journal shows the total jail population as of Dec. 31 was 1,224 inmates, including those individuals awaiting trial at home through the county’s Community Custody Program. That’s a 23.2 percent drop from the year prior, and a 41.8 percent decline from Dec. 31, 2014. The county attributes that decrease to criminal justice reform measures such as reducing the amount of time parole violators spend in jail before receiving a hearing and expanding the early plea program.

The reform measures are part of an effort to comply with a 20-year-old federal class action lawsuit that claimed conditions at the jail violated inmates’ constitutional rights.

The decline received significant public attention in recent months when Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry presented a study indicating the lower jail population was correlated with an increase in the city’s crime rate. An analysis from the University of New Mexico disagreed, saying the correlation was weak and had been used incorrectly.

Nancy Fishman, a project director at the nonprofit Vera Institute, led a presentation at the county’s event called “Reducing Your Local Jail Population: Getting Started.” In it, she emphasized that it’s essential for counties to seek collaboration and, as often as possible, consensus, throughout the process of instituting criminal justice reforms.

“What is a jail? Who should be in there and who should not?” said Fishman. “If you have a lot of different answers to those questions, it’s hard to measure how you’re making progress toward your goals.”

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