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).