NM: “People are laughing when we put the cuffs on them”

Commission hears report on jail programs

(excerpt from the Silver City Daily Press (Silver City, NM) - April 17 2019

Two Grant County officials discussed the county’s rural justice system at Tuesday’s Grant County Commission work session, where commissioners also laid plans to involve the public more in future planning for capital projects.

County Manager Charlene Webb gave a detailed report on the progress the county is making in assessing the Stepping Up jail diversion program, which the county is looking at adopting to coordinate services surrounding pretrial release and sentencing. Lt. Mike Burns, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office, gave a presentation arguing that bail bond and pretrial release reforms that took place after New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 are wreaking havoc in the community.

Together, the two county officials leading discussions on issues involving pretrial release conditions and recidivism spoke to the fact that rural New Mexico is struggling to address the growing cost of incarceration, as well as facing a steep learning curve in the new no-jail-bond era.

Webb reported that a county task force is soon expected to wrap up its exploration of how the county might benefit from implementing a nationwide program that aims to mitigate the cost of issues like overcrowding, and a jail population suffering from substance abuse disorders and mental health issues. She said rural counties around the country are looking for solutions to their expensive and growing jail populations. 

Webb said that in some months, “between 80 to 88 percent” of individuals held at the Grant County Detention Center have either drug dependency disorders or mental health problems. These problems raise detention center costs and create the need for treatment to be addressed during sentencing — which requires programs that rural counties often lack. 

The Stepping Up program works with services like “tele-psych, regional partnerships across counties and the development of mobile crisis teams involving first responders and police and behavioral health,” she said. “Tu Casa becoming a crisis triage center will help.” 

Webb also recognized the need for better pretrial services, like screenings, indigent services and employment services for defendants released from the detention center.  Pretrial services also include effective monitoring for those under conditions of release, something Burns hit on during his presentation. 

Burns painted a picture in which many repeat offenders are arrested and, shortly after their arrest, released with no financial consequences — i.e. forfeited bonds — for their not showing up to future court dates. 

“The bond system was primarily to ensure defendant cooperation with the process and make sure they showed up to court,” he said. “It allowed judges to keep dangerous defendants off the street. With this current system, we have found we have no effective pretrial services available. A defendant who is released under the current system frequently commits other offenses.” 

Burns said that not only is it too easy to get out of jail, it is also too difficult to convince judges to deny a defendant’s release before trial.

“People are laughing when we put the cuffs on them,” Burns told commissioners. 

The state’s elimination of the old bond schedule for crimes was intended to even the field for people who get arrested, regardless of their ability to pay a bond to get out of jail.

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