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34 House Arrest Inmates 'AWOL'

By Jeff Proctor
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Thirty-four of the 490 inmates released from jail into Bernalillo County's increasingly controversial house arrest program are missing, officials said Friday.
        And one judge said she has already discovered two inmates with violent backgrounds who were allowed in the program.
        "We're always concerned, and we want them back into our custody as soon as possible, of course," said Metropolitan Detention Center Capt. Heather Lough, who oversees the Community Custody Program, of the missing inmates. "Is that an abnormal amount (to be missing)? No, considering our population. But we will work hard to get them back."
        A Journal analysis of CCP inmates classified as "AWOL" showed that warrants might not have been issued for some of them.
        Lough said it is county policy to issue a warrant for an inmate's arrest as soon as the jail learns he or she has absconded from CCP. She said she would need more time to research the missing warrants.
        Darren White, the city's public safety boss, said that, if warrants are missing, it would be cause for alarm.
        "My fear is that a law enforcement officer has contact with one of those people and doesn't know they're on the run," White said. "It can be very dangerous when an officer doesn't know who they're dealing with."
        The Community Custody Program is at the center of an intensive review that began after the program's court liaison, Vince Peele, was arrested June 12 on suspicion of taking bribes to get inmates out of jail and into CCP.
        Judges react
        Metro Court judges voted to essentially suspend the court's involvement with CCP until they have gone through each inmate's file to determine whether the inmate is appropriate for the program.
        Conversely, state District Court Chief Criminal Judge Albert S. "Pat" Murdoch defended CCP this week, saying: "As far as we're concerned, the program is working fine."
        District Court judges did vote to suspend referrals to the program until they have had a chance to review each case in which one of them has given the green light for an inmate to leave jail on CCP.
        The county provided both courts' judges with a list of inmates on community custody earlier this week, and judges began receiving case files to review Friday.
        Metro Judge Sharon Walton said she received her first batch of eight cases for review late Friday.
        One of the eight inmates had a rape conviction, she said. Another also had violent charges. And two were inmates who had been placed on CCP without Walton's knowledge.
        Inmates being placed on CCP without judicial notification or consultation "has been a concern of mine for a long time," the judge said. "I think that's a significant issue."
        Walton said she has learned after the fact about numerous offenders she considered inappropriate for the program but who were let out of jail on CCP anyway.
        "What I think the public considers a violent offense is different from what CCP (officials) consider a violent offense," she said.
        "And even with what CCP calls a violent offense — they are putting people on the program who they said they wouldn't. I think rape is one of those offenses."
        CCP process
        CCP allows about 500 prisoners serving sentences or awaiting trial for nonviolent offenses to leave the jail under strict restrictions that include monitoring with electronic ankle bracelets.
        In some cases, judges specifically refer prisoners to the program. Others are chosen by a committee the jail has set up to screen inmates it thinks are appropriate.
        County spokeswoman Liz Hamm on Friday provided an explanation of how the committee works:
        • It has between four and seven members — jail supervisors and CCP caseworkers — and meets two to three times a week. Peele has been a member and chairman of the committee.
        • The committee reviews packets on inmates compiled by other jail staff. "These reviews are not conducted until after arraignments/first appearances because judges have the right to place a "NO CCP" on an inmate during this hearing. Those inmates will not be forwarded to CCP committee for review."
        • All members of the committee must agree to the placement of the inmate on CCP. If one committee member denies placement, the inmate can appeal to MDC Director Ron Torres or to the judge handling the case.
        • Once an outside residence is established, the inmate is fitted with an ankle bracelet. A notification is sent to the assigned judge, who is supposed to then have another opportunity to deny the inmate's placement into the program.
        Judges say Peele would personally appeal to them to allow certain prisoners into the program.
        Peele, who was arrested Saturday on bribery, conspiracy and identity theft charges, was released from the Metropolitan Detention Center several hours after his arrest, court records show. He put up property to cover his $50,000 bond.
        Authorities have not said who was paying the bribes.
        A multiagency task force that includes the U.S. Secret Service, Albuquerque police and the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department is investigating the alleged scheme.
        Earlier this week, Peele issued a statement through his attorney, Lisa Torraco.
        "The community needs to know and be assured that no one got out of jail and onto CCP without approval from the committee or by a judge's signature, as far as Vince is aware," Torraco said.

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