Jail Population Pressure Builds

Photo Credit: neil conway via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: neil conway via Compfight cc

By Marisa Demarco

— Bernalillo County Commissioners last night did not reach an agreement to send inmates out of the county, a move meant to decrease the population at an overfilled Metropolitan Detention Center.

The proposal was made by MDC Chief Ramon Rustin. He sought $1.4 million to house 300 prisoners in jails in Estancia, Los Lunas, Cibola County, Sandoval County and—as a last resort—Littlefield, Texas. That initial cost would only cover expenses through the end of June. Overall, the county would likely have to cough up $6 million for the first year of shipping inmates to other jails.

A civil rights lawsuit—known as the McClendon lawsuit—filed 18 years ago about conditions at MDC is coming to a head. Commission Chair Maggie Hart Stebbins acknowledged the urgency of alleviating the crowding at the jail. “If we don’t do it today,” she said at the Tuesday, April 9 meeting, “we’ll be back here doing it in a couple of months under court order.”

There are about 2,650 inmates in custody, and the jail is about 240 inmates over design capacity, Rustin said.

Commissioner Art De La Cruz said there had to be another way. Inmates who hadn’t yet been sentenced, who simply couldn’t afford to bond out of MDC and who had committed nonviolent crimes should be released into community custody, he said. “State statute says we cannot release inmates without a court order,” he argued, but the Constitution should trump state law, and it says people cannot be incarcerated inhumanely. “People in overpopulated jails, that is inhumane.”

De La Cruz said another problem with shipping inmates to jails in other places was that the county loses control of how people are treated in those facilities. “If something happens to inmates while they’re there, we’re still on the hook for it.”

Commissioner Wayne Johnson said the issue is frustrating for the county. “We have a mandate, but we have no way to affect the judicial system causing overpopulation.” Bernalillo County could build more jails, he said, but where would it end? He suggested an increase in plea bargains, putting more people into community custody programs and speedier pre-trial services could ease overpopulation.

The problem is the created by many entities, Hart Stebbins said, including the Legislature, the Sheriff’s Department, the Albuquerque Police Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Metro Court. But it’s the county that’s left holding the bag. Still, she said, housing inmates elsewhere was the only way to immediately address the problem. “I really feel like our hands are tied.”

In the end, the resolution failed on a 2-2 vote, with De La Cruz and Johnson voting against it.

Commissioner Lonnie Talbert was excused from the meeting.

Help is on the Way

The Fire Departments of Bernalillo County and Albuquerque have reached an agreement to send whomever is nearest to an emergency. The way things work now, if a situation arises outside the city limits, even if an Albuquerque unit is closest, it falls on the county to respond—and vice versa.

Hart Stebbins said it doesn’t matter what the fire truck looks like when it comes to help someone who’s been in a serious accident. “You want someone there as fast as humanely possible.”

The deal took more than a year to reach. AFD Chief James Breen said a lot of work went into overcoming technical barriers that prevent the two departments from collaborating. “This is truly historic for us.”

On April 16, the departments will road test the new system in parts of the North Valley and the Northeast Heights. If all goes well, the plan will go countywide six weeks later.

My Liver is Your Liver

Commisisoner Art De La Cruz sponsored a resolution to create a Human Organ Transplant Institute in Bernalillo County. After speaking with doctors and New Mexico’s Congressional delegation—as well as with Mayor Richard Berry—it became apparent that there is a great need for such a facility in our state, he said.

According to the resolution:

There is no facility in the state that can perform multi-organ transplants, so local patients must travel out of state. About 700 people await organs, and 30 percent will die before one becomes available. More than 150 livers were sent out of state over the last five years, but there are 165 New Mexicans listed in other states seeking livers.

The resolution also suggests an institute could serve as a training center for local medical students.

Photo Credit: pheezy via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: pheezy via Compfight cc

Dogged Determination

The Commission honored Joyce Lewis, who first created an email alert system to help people find lost pets in the East Mountains. Since its humble beginnings, the system has become a website featuring missing animals in the region.

Former state Rep. Kathy McCoy was on hand to congratulate Lewis. Finding pets in the East Mountains can be a challenge, she pointed out, given its rough terrain and numerous predators. The system has reunited many lost animals with their families, she added.

Lewis said the honor also belongs to the hundreds of people in the network. The experience has shown her that “you are never too old to find a way to serve your community,” she said.

Schrader Time

Philosopher and activist Don Schrader was the only citizen signed up to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting. His focus was consumption. He said the U.S. is only a small part of the world’s population but hogs a significant amount of resources. “I refuse to live that way.” His yearly income report: $4,641 was all he spent in 2012, Schrader said, and he lived well. He would never trade places with a millionaire or billionaire, he added. “I would be terribly ashamed to live that way.”