Civil rights groups propose cutting prison time by 70-80 percent

Civil rights groups are pushing to reform the criminal justice system in New Mexico, outlining a plan to cut the state’s prison population in half.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Smart Justice believe drug addicts and the mentally ill need help through a treatment approach, not prison.

“We have wasted millions and millions of dollars incarcerating folks and that has done nothing to make our community safer,” Smart Justice Coordinator Barron Jones said.

He claimed people don’t get the treatment they need once they’re released, so they end up back behind bars, creating a cycle that that also hurts taxpayers.

“It’s time we put our communities and our families first,” he said.

That’s why this week, the civil rights groups introduced a plan to significantly cut prison time by 70 to 80 percent, for everything from DWI, drug offenses and drug-fueled crimes like theft and robbery, to weapons charges and assault.

“We need to get people into the community so they can get the rehabilitation they need and get the support of their families,” Jones added.

He said the goal is to get them into rehab quicker and to cut the number of people in New Mexico prisons by more than half — from 7,373 to 4,306 — by 2025, saving taxpayers an estimated $470 million.

“Half a billion dollars is a lot of money that could be reinvested in mental health treatment, mental health services, strengthening our education,” Jones said.

According to the report, that means someone serving a two-year sentence for assault would end up staying in prison for less than five months.

However, in a state that already has an out-of-control crime problem, that proposal is raising eyebrows.

“Robbery is putting a gun to someone’s head and taking something that isn’t theirs. Battery is actually hurting somebody. Do we actually want to release those folks or have them serve a lesser sentence?” New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas asked.

He said putting 4,000 more criminals back on New Mexico streets is not the solution to helping fight crime.

“I believe in treatment. I believe there’s a place for that, but at some point you’re not amenable to that. That’s most of the people in prison,” he said.

The groups hope to put their ideas in motion by approaching state representatives before the January legislative session to look at investing in ways to fight substance abuse disorders and mental illness.

The ACLU produced reports for all states. Read them here.

The groups say it’s possible to reduce the state’s prison population by more than half by 2025, citing a report showing crime rates fell in New Jersey, California and New York when their prison populations were reduced. 

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