SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – In the last few years, New Mexico has seen some big changes within the criminal justice system. The state decriminalized marijuana, prison populations have been dropping, and statewide crime rates have dropped since 2018 (although not every community saw a drop). All this has led New Mexico’s lawmakers to ask: Should the state combine jails and prisons to address some key problems?
Currently, New Mexico’s jails are run by counties. Prisons, on the other hand, are operated by the State of New Mexico. This sort of split system is used across most of the U.S. And in New Mexico, legislators created a task force to find out if a “unified” system would help improve detention centers across the state.
Some states do use a unified corrections system, where the state pays for – and operates – all facilities. Now, a task force has evaluated whether or not New Mexico should join those states with unified systems including Alaska, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Hawaii, according to a new report.
New Mexico’s legislators asked the task force to evaluate options earlier this year. On Tuesday, they presented their findings to the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee.
“Smaller and more targeted solutions will be more effective at this time than a full system restructure,” explains Celeste Gander, a policy specialist at the Crime and Justice Institute. So, the overall conclusion: New Mexico’s jails should remain under county administration, not move to a combined system.
But the task force did make recommendations to fix existing issues. One of the big issues – and an issue many industries are currently facing – is staffing shortages.
“This is a national crisis that we’re seeing: A lot of jails and prisons are understaffed right now and having difficulty finding staffing,” says Justin Porter, an administrator with the Chaves County Detention Center. “When we have a shortage of staffing, this causes us to modify some of our practices, be creative with our staffing plans, and in some cases, has caused some detention centers or prisons to move some of the detainees from their facilities to another facility, essentially passing off some of that responsibility.”
This lack of stability can be tough on both correctional facility workers as well as the prisoners. And on top of staffing, the task force noted that existing staff often lack standardized training.
“Training requirements for detention centers are established by the counties that those detention centers are in,” Porter says. Counties have worked with the Adult Detention Professional Standards Council to create standardized training requirements for facilities. But “right now, we only have 10 counties in New Mexico that are accredited, so 10 counties that are working off those training requirements for detention centers.”
And there’s a connectivity issue. “Even though it’s 2022, right now, we have a number of facilities that are still operating solely on paper because of the inability to access the internet,” Porter says. “What we saw is we have some smaller communities, and some larger communities, that just don’t have the [digital] structure.”
To fix the issues, the task force says legislators and state leaders need to set aside funding for broadband access and perhaps amend state statutes in order to ensure counties have the funds to pay for prisoners.