NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – There’s been a “dramatic” decline in the state’s prison population from summer of 2020 to summer of 2021, according to the New Mexico Sentencing Commission (NMSC). In early November, the commission, which evaluates policies related to the criminal justice system, told state legislators that the recent declines in part are likely due to ongoing criminal justice reform, increased prison diversion programs, and changes in how criminals are sentenced.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is also thought to have played a role, as jury trials were suspended and the Department of Corrections worked to find elderly and at-risk prisoners who were eligible for early release, according to the NMSC. However, the decline in prison population began even before the pandemic.

For the first time in the last 10 years, the peak male prison population — the maximum number in prison in a fiscal year — has dropped below 6,000 prisoners. And the peak female prison population has dropped by a total of 24% over the last two fiscal years to 607 prisoners in 2021, according to data from the NMSC.

“Some of the decline may be attributable to a decrease in prosecutions during the pandemic,” Linda Freeman, the executive director at NMSC, told the legislature. As a result, the NMSC predicts a slight increase in prison populations in the coming years, as the effects of COVID-19 wane.

“It wasn’t a surprise to the committee members that our [prison] population is declining,” says Representative Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque,) who co-chairs the New Mexico Courts, Corrections & Justice Committee. “It actually is good news because it’s so expensive to house prisoners. And there have been a number of states who initiated criminal justice reform for the specific purpose of reducing their prison population.”

In fact, incarceration costs the state an average of around $44,800 per prisoner per year, according to a recent report by the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC). As a result, “unprecedented but sustained reductions in [the prison] population could provide significant cost savings,” the LFC reports.

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Interactive Slider: Both male and female prison populations have declined over the last few years. Note that y-axis does not start at zero. Data from NMSC.

Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a national research and advocacy group working towards criminal justice reform, points out that New Mexico has a pre-pandemic incarceration rate of 733 of every 100,000 people being sent to jails, prisons, and other facilities, according to their analysis of several years of data. That puts New Mexico in the top 20 states with the highest incarceration rates.

“It’s good news when prison populations go down, especially when prison populations go down and there’s no impact on public safety,” she says. But Bertram adds that she doesn’t have any data on how public safety in New Mexico might have been affected by declines in prison populations.

Violent crime has been on the rise in major cities across the nation, including Albuquerque. Albuquerque residents recently saw a violent weekend, with three murders recorded in a three-day span. The total number of homicides recorded by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) reached an all-time high of 100 as of November 15.

Freeman from the NMSC says that the decline in prison population and the recent rise in violent crime are not directly connected. “As to the issue of present crime trends and the prison populations, I don’t think the two are entirely related,” she told KRQE News 13. After all, she points out, there are many factors that affect crime rates. And there’s a lag in time between when a crime is committed and when the convicted criminal ends up in prison.

In recent years, roughly 25% of males admitted to prison in New Mexico were violent criminals — including but not limited to people convicted of sex crimes, assault, kidnapping, robbery, and child abuse. But the single most common reason for both male and female admission was parole violation, data from the NMSC shows.

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Interactive Slider: In recent years most entries to prison have been due to parole, probation, and diagnostic admissions. Data from NMSC.

Criminal recidivism in New Mexico increased from the summer of 2020 to the summer of 2021, according to a recent report by the Legislative Finance Committee. Over that time, the percent of prisoners reincarcerated within three years of release on a new or pending charge increased by 2%. That number had been falling for the last five years, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.

Wanda Bertram from the Prison Policy Initiative questions the value of incarceration. She says that putting people in prison doesn’t equal a safe community. She explains that it’s often seen as an easy solution to the complex social problems that lead to a life of crime.

“For the politicians who feel like they’re under the gun to present a quick solution to crime and disorder, it is the easy way out,” she says. But “for people who have an incarcerated loved one,” she says, prison “may not be any easier than trying to get that person some help or some counseling.”

Diversion programs are one alternative to prison. Last year, statewide and local diversion programs gained traction in New Mexico. The Bernalillo County District Attorney implemented one such program.

The program allows offenders with minimal criminal history charged with a non-violent crime to sign an agreement to avoid prison. Under the agreement, the offenders have daily check-ins with officers where they provide updates on drug intervention programs, job applications, or counseling, according to a press release from the District Attorney’s office. The office says they are going to provide a public update on the effectiveness of the diversion program soon.

Such diversion programs are likely to slow the rate of prison admissions in New Mexico, according to the recent NMSC report to the state legislature. The legalization of recreational cannabis and expungement of cannabis-related criminal records could also affect the prison population in the future. But Freeman from the NMSC told the legislature that the effects of decriminalization on prison populations is not entirely clear.

“With regards to cannabis legalization,” she told legislators, “I think we will see a decline [in prison admissions]. However, I’m not sure how quickly we’ll see that decline. In New Mexico, I think, for the most part, we don’t have large concentrations of individuals who have small amounts of cannabis going to prison.”

In May, KRQE News 13 reported that the Department of Corrections was reviewing about 100 individuals’ cases to see if they were eligible for release under the cannabis expungement law. KRQE News 13 reached out to the New Mexico Department of Corrections for an update, but we have not heard back yet.

Bertram from the Prison Policy Initiative points out that when it comes to criminal justice reform, it’s not just diversion and expungement that can help keep people out of prisons. Social programs, such as free public transportation, can help too.

“I actually saw some news from Albuquerque a while ago that made me very happy,” she told KRQE News 13. “Albuquerque made public transit free.”

Bertram is talking about the “Zero Fare” pilot program, which is supposed to start no later than January 1 of 2022. The new ordinance removes the misdemeanor penalty for failing to pay bus fare in Albuquerque.

“Making critical services that everybody should have access to free or cheaper is one of the best criminal justice reforms that you can make,” Bertram explains. “That’s not just going to help you when you need to send your son or daughter to school every day and they might want to take public transportation. It’s also going to help somebody who’s been released from prison and doesn’t have a bunch of money that needs to get around town or just start rebuilding their life.”