SMARTER, NOT TOUGHER: Republicans and Democrats in New Mexico are looking at revamping the criminal justice system in the state, where taxpayers spend $34,000 a year per inmate.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE – When Hal Stratton became the first Republican since 1928 to win the race for New Mexico attorney general in 1986, he ran on a “tough on crime” platform.
Now a private lawyer in Albuquerque, Stratton says he’s still a proud conservative but has taken a different approach to how New Mexico’s prisons, as well as the criminal justice system in the state, are run.
“There’s got to be ways we can save money,” Stratton told New Mexico Watchdog.
And plenty of money is being spent.
According to the Legislative Finance Committee, New Mexico spent almost $300 million in fiscal 2011 to house an average of 6,700 offenders and supervise another 18,000 offenders each day.
It’s estimated the average cost per inmate in New Mexico is about $34,000 per year. Compare that to the average of $7,300 that’s spent per student in New Mexico’s public schools.
Working with former Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden, R- Richardson, Stratton argues conservatives have abandoned their limited government principles when it comes to spending — in the criminal justice system in general and prison construction in particular.
Madden is a senior fellow for “Right on Crime,” a nonprofit that argues for changing the criminal justice system with conservative principles.
“What I’ve learned is, how much it’s costing us, how there are maybe people in jail that shouldn’t be there, how I think we’ve over-criminalized a lot of things, and I think some of the sentences are out of whack,” Stratton said.
For example, Stratton talked to county commissioners, law enforcement and lawyers to learn an estimated 1,000 people are in Bernalillo County’s Metro Detention Center and that a vast majority of them — Stratton says he’s been told as high as 83 percent — are in lockup because they can’t post the $100 bond.
“Now if somebody’s dangerous, you’re not going to give them a hundred-dollar bond, right?” Stratton said.
But to relieve overcrowding, Stratton says, some county inmates are being shipped out-of-state, to a facility northeast of Houston.
“You almost want to go down and pay their bail for them because it will save the taxpayer money,” said Stratton, a former member of the New Mexico Legislature and chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission under President George W. Bush.
“I don’t know exactly what needs to be done in New Mexico,” Stratton said, “but I know we need to look at it and I know the people in charge need to look at it.”
That’s what the Legislature is trying to do.
Leading up to the upcoming 30-day legislative session in January, a Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee was established to explore options to reduce overcrowding and costs while protecting public safety.
A Democrat — Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas — and a Republican — Sen. Lisa Torraco — both from Albuquerque and both former prosecutors, will lead the commission.
“We don’t need to be tough on crime, we need to smart on crime,” Torraco said Tuesday.
“Ironically, it’s our friends from the right that are doing it, it’s the red states that are doing these reforms, and we have to learn from their example,” said Maestas.
Madden, who appeared before the subcommittee in Santa Fe, says since 2011 Texas has 6,000 fewer prisoners, yet the crime rate in the Lone Star State has continued to drop.
“It’s not counter-intuitive. It means it’s working,” Madden said. “When it comes to non-violent offenders (in custody), we’re reducing the numbers. It’s the guys we call the knuckleheads. They’re in on drug charges or for writing hot checks. They got involved with the wrong crowd, not hardened criminals.”
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is a former district attorney noted for her law-and-order stances, but Torraco said it looks like there may some buy-in. “So far it looks we’ve got a lot of support.”
But don’t expect any major overhaul in the upcoming 30-day legislative session that starts in January.
“I don’t want to say exactly what kind of changes we need to make until the data comes in,” Torraco said. “We need to get the numbers, we need to study the numbers and then see how we can make the most effective change so that people are still safe and taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.”
Torraco said she and Maestas are looking at the 60-day session in 2015 to push reform.
“The current system is unsustainable, and the rise of taxpayer dollars going to these correctional facilities is off the chart,” Maestas said.
“In 1789, when we passed the Constitution and it was adopted, we had 20 federal felony statutes. Now we have over 4,300. There can’t be that many things you can do to be put in jail if you ask me,” Stratton said with a rueful laugh. “I just think the system can use some reform.”
Has Stratton received any criticism from those who think he’s gone soft on crime?
“Zero,” Stratton said. “I have received no push-back … That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who disagree but if there are, they’re not telling me.”
By the way, Rep. Maestas and Sen. Torraco are urging the public to offer their own suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And here’s NM Watchdog video of both talking about the subcommittee:
Contact Rob Nikolewski at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski