Jail a Costly, Unnecessary Problem

On May 18th the Journal opined that “the county needs a data-driven approach to managing the jail’s population.” I couldn’t agree more.

Fortunately, there’s no lack of data or analysis, just a lack of effective action resulting in the reduction of MDC inmate population.

First, it’s important to understand the role of a county jail – which is far different from that of a state prison. Jails are short-term incarceration facilities whose primary mission is to serve the criminal justice system. Ideally, a jail should hold only those accused of a crime and sentenced misdemeanants.

As of mid-April the population at MDC was made up of 2% probation violators with new misdemeanor charges, 9% sentenced misdemeanor offenders, 9% sentenced felony offenders, 10% technical felony probation violators, 11% probation violators with new felony charges, 19% pretrial misdemeanor offenders, and 40% were pretrial felony offenders.

Over half (51%) of the population was made up of pretrial felons, if you include probation violators with new felony charges. When sentenced felons are included, that number rises to 60%.

If we’re serious about reducing jail overcrowding, the place to start is in the jail’s felony population. While probation violators that have managed to rack up another felony charge may constitute a danger to the community and belong in jail, I would argue that MDC is not the place for convicted felons. Those inmates belong in a state prison designed for felons and not in a county jail. Simply moving convicted felons from MDC to the appropriate state facility would result in a reduction of at least 250 inmates.

That leaves the largest single block of MDC inmates – pretrial felons.

Remember, these are individuals who have been accused of a felony, not convicted of one. They have rights under the U.S. Constitution – one of which is the right to a speedy trial – and take up about 1,000 beds.

According to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) January 2013 report, 49% of felony cases in Large Urban Counties had progressed from arrest to final disposition within 90 days. In Bernalillo County and the 2nd Judicial District only 2% of felonies had reached final disposition within 90 days and only 39% had reached final disposition within a full year. Meanwhile, other Large Urban Counties had disposed of 88% of their felony cases within a year.

In short, the 2nd Judicial District moves at an almost glacial pace when compared to similar districts in other states.

Both the NCSC and the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP) determined that MDC overcrowding is a direct result of slow case flow through the 2nd Judicial District.

The ILPP concludes, “Bernalillo County over-uses its jail resource by failing to manage the Criminal Justice System work and case flow.”  From the NCSC, “Model Time Standards for criminal cases suggest that felony cases should be disposed of more quickly than they now are in Bernalillo County.”

The NCSC goes on to say “…we conclude that the Court and its criminal justice partners not only should shorten times from arrest to disposition, but that there are demonstrably successful ways by which they can do so.”

Inevitably, cries of inadequate funding go up whenever there is pressure on the criminal justice system to improve efficiency. The NCSC report addresses that too – “the inadequacy of staffing levels may be magnified because the management of felony case progress in the 2nd Judicial District needs improvement. If felony case flow management were improved, personnel resource needs would be a less salient consideration.”

Recently, Judge Parker ordered the county to create a plan to meet very specific population goals by September 1st. On its own, the only way the County can achieve these goals is to expand the number of available beds by either shipping inmates out or building a new facility. Both options will cost residents of Bernalillo County millions – millions that wouldn’t have to be spent if our criminal justice system partners would move accused felons from arrest to final disposition in a timely manner.

Bernalillo County taxpayers should not have to pay millions of dollars to ship inmates or build bigger jails simply because our criminal justice system moves too slowly and is reluctant to make significant systemic changes to improve efficiency.

Call it “finger pointing” if you like, I call it using data to identify a significant, costly, and unnecessary problem.

Note: The reports cited in this piece are available on the County’s website. You can find them at: http://www.bernco.gov/commission-district-5/ under the heading “Public Safety Information.”

The column above was published June 2nd, 2013 by the Albuquerque Journal under the title “Jail a Costly, Unnecessary Problem” (Subscription).

The Downtown Jail Back on the Agenda

Two weeks ago at the May 8th meeting of the Bernalillo County Commission, Commissioners voted 3 to 2 (with Hart-Stebbins and Lujan-Grisham voting in the negative) to require Commission approval for any expenditure from the County of Bernalillo Regional Corrections Center Fund. The $3.6 million fund was slated to be used for “Renovation of Old MDC.”

The reason that I proposed the amendment requiring approval is that the Commission has not determined what is to be done with the facility and DCM Swisstack has yet to produce a plan that would justify the use of those funds. I wanted to make sure that these funds didn’t find their way into a project that hadn’t been approved or reviewed by the Commission and that they were used in a responsible, thoughtful way. Apparently, County staff disagreed and has added an item to tonight’s agenda that would undo the Commission approval requirement.

The County’s Public Safety Department has thus far failed in its responsibility to create a plan for the facility. And if there’s one thing I have learned in my first year and a half as a County Commissioner is that pots of money that are left lying around get spent – whether or not the expenditure is justified.

Getting the population of the Metropolitan Detention Center under control is the TOP priority for the County. Currently, we are paying millions each year to house inmates that may not belong out at Hotel MDC. Historically, the Commission has given full authority to the DCM of Public Safety to solve the problems out at MDC. How’s that working out for us? I think the lack of results speak for themselves.

It’s well past time that the Commission take a more active role in solving our overcrowding problem at MDC. Requiring Commission approval for the expenditure of funds on the old jail is just one small step toward holding County bureaucrats accountable. Unless and until the folks over at Public Safety produce a plan that justifies their expenditures and outlines their efforts to reduce population, they will find me watching every move they make.

Rhetoric Over Reality

The April 24th meeting of the Bernalillo County Commission was a study in why the current management structure should not be continued. It was an exercise in politics over substance, rhetoric over reality.
The Commission was presented with a Pretrial Services “plan” to reduce jail population. The draft proposal was created by the Second Judicial District Court and inserted as Deputy County Manager Tom Swisstack’s “plan” to reduce jail population. Commissioners were assured by Chief Judge Baca and DCM Swisstack that public safety would be the first priority and that the plan would involve low risk pretrial felons. There’s only one little problem – that’s not what the proposal says.
The proposal from District Court specifically says 100 high risk defendants “charged and indicted on sexual offenses, second and third degree domestic violence, first and second degree cases, and defendants with physical medical issues that prevent the defendant from reporting to Pretrial Services in person.” This isn’t a characterization or a case of taking a quote out of context, the entire proposal deals with high risk pretrial felons – low to medium risk felons are not even mentioned.
Chief Judge Baca was somewhat displeased by the revelation of the contents of his plan and opined that something like this would never happen in his courtroom. I believe he is correct. I don’t believe that any judge would allow someone appearing before them to completely mischaracterize a document that they have sitting right in front of them.
Now I don’t believe that Judge Baca or Tom Swisstack intend to release dangerous accused felons back into the population – that is if I listen only to what they say. But if I read what’s “planned” then I have to at least consider the possibility that very dangerous people will be sent back into a community that they are already accused of victimizing.
More problematic is if I believe just their words, then they have no plan what-so-ever to use $1.5 million taxpayer dollars. Conversely, if I believe their written plan, then 100 high risk accused felons will be circulating in the general public and even if it works, 100 fewer high risk inmates will hardly put a dent in the over 600 inmates we need to move out. Frankly, this proposal was premature, ill-advised, and completely mischaracterized as something it wasn’t. Mr. Swisstack and Judge Baca asked the Commission not to look at the man behind the curtain and four of them did not – I did and was admonished for my audacity.
It’s very hard to have confidence in a management structure that has failed to produce a plan for a $5 million “Alternatives to Incarceration” facility at the old downtown jail, has failed to produce a pretrial services plan that actually matched their rhetoric, and has managed a facility that has been continuously overcrowded almost since the day it opened. Yet three of my colleagues even managed to do that.
Rhetoric over reality – words over thoughtful planning. 
The good news is that while Mr. Swisstack has failed to produce a plan, the staff at MDC has not. You can view a complete reform proposal and a pretrial services white paper on my bernco.gov site (here).
These ideas came from inside the jail and require input from the public and all of the criminal justice stake-holders especially the Criminal Court judges from District Court. If we use the County’s Public Safety Advisory Board and the Committee being assembled by Judge Baca we can avoid contentious meetings like the one on April 24th, reduce the population at MDC, and most importantly, keep the public safe.


This post was published by the Albuquerque Journal May 3rd (read it here – subscription).