Roughly 35 percent of inmates doing time in county jails are mentally ill—a sign that adult detention facilities in New Mexico have become a de facto form of housing in the absence of state mental facilities and just one of the problems with the cost of incarceration across the state.
Consider this: There were 100,000 bookings at 27 local detention facilities in New Mexico for the fiscal year 2015, for an average daily population 7,305. That's nearly as many inmates serving in state-run prisons, which logged an average daily count of 7,000 for the same year.
At least a third of the inmates in county lockups spend only two weeks behind bars, says Grace Philips, the general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties. But plenty of inmates "languish inside" as they face state charges and transportation to state prisons. It's an amount of time that can last between one month and as long as one year, often leaving the county governments picking up the tab.
Exacerbating the problem is a third of the inmates incarcerated in county detention facilities require psychotropic drugs, claims Philips, who explains that the number was derived from a study last year of Bernalillo County's jail population, which served as a representative example of the entire jail population across New Mexico.
Now comes the financial ramifications: One dollar in every $3 to house said inmates comes from the general operating fund of all 33 counties in the state. As such, the inmate population has become “a moving target,” Philips says, making the jail population unpredictable as it pertains to costs.
“What it means is that that we’re spending a whole lot of money to lock up a whole lot of people, and that detention facilities in the counties are expensive to run,” says Philips, who plans on releasing a report at a legislative hearing in the Roundhouse on Tuesday, Dec. 1, when the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee convenes. The committee meeting is scheduled to start Monday and end Wednesday.
There's no better gauge of what’s going on at the county level than listening to Philips and the association, which has been on a roll these days in its effort to hold the state accountable for its funding obligation, as it pertains to county detention facilities.
In recent weeks, the association has been convincing county commissions across New Mexico to pass resolutions asking the state to meet its financial promises. By law, the state was to set aside $5 million to help the counties house the excessive number of inmates, but last year’s funding was reduced to $2.9 million, and the year before, only $3.3 million was allocated.
“It’s a legal obligation, not a budgetary one,” Philips says, referring the Detention Facilities Reimbursement Act, passed by the Legislature in 2007. The act created a special fund accessible by all counties to deal with three particular sets of inmates: parole violators, inmates who are sentenced to prison and are waiting to be transferred, and offenders who are jointly supervised by probation and parole officers.
Santa Fe County did its part a few weeks ago, passing the resolution unanimously, but resolutions are a dime a dozen, and its unknown whether the state will step up in the face of greater financial woes. Detention facilities may not be a high priority on the county's list, according to Philips.
In Farmington, San Juan County signed on to the same resolution, which outlined the association's four legislative priorities.
Yet a third of the inmate population in all counties are made up of this trio of individuals, who, Philips says, often languish in the system waiting for trial.
“Some of them sit inside for a long period of time,” she explains. “And they make up a good chunk of the population.”
Philips should know, because she filed a lawsuit against the state in 2006 on behalf of the counties after San Miguel County was having a hard time, financially speaking, housing its inmates, which led the New Mexico Court of Appeals to rule that the state was partially responsible for such detentions, because the state prison system was their ultimate destination.
As a result, though, the county has had to foot the bill, which often includes medical care while inmates sit inside the detention facilities, not to mention the cost of transporting them to and from the courts, all of which adds up, says Philips.
“In reality, the state should be increasing the funding, not reducing it,” says Philips, who has been with the association since 2006; prior to that, she worked for Santa Fe County, where she became a guru in legal matters as they pertain to inmate detention and civil rights.
Just how the Legislature will react during next year’s session, as it relates to the mentally ill jail population along with its financial obligations to the counties, remains to be seen, but the process begins this Tuesday morning in room 322, starting at 9:30 am.