Failure of prison coronavirus testing in NM begs scrutiny

Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New MexicanGovernor Michelle Lujan Grisham delivers her weekly COVID19 press conference from the state capital. Six-thousand-five-hundred-fifty-eight people woke up Thursday morning behind bars in New Mexico’s 11 prisons, according to the state Department of Corrections. Just eight of them have been tested for the new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease, COVID-19. 

That’s a test rate of .0012%. The state employs about 1,800 people to supervise those inmates and oversee the lockups; it has ordered tests for 33 of them. The rate: 1.8%.

‘We’re stuck in here.’ Woman describes life inside Luna County jail during pandemic

The Luna County Detention Center holds 590 inmates at maximum capacity. As of Wednesday morning, just over 200 people were locked inside the jail in Deming, about 30 miles north of the Mexican border. Shauna Smith, a 43-year-old mother who has been incarcerated there since October, said the inmate population has been steadily thinning since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across New Mexico in early March. The county of roughly 24,000 people has seen just 347 tests for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, with three positive results as of Wednesday, according to the state Health Department. Like so many other jails and prisons around the state, few of those tests were performed at the Luna County Detention Center — four inmates and three staff members, all of whom were negative.

Scaled back probation, parole reforms advancing in Legislature

A legislative effort to reform parts of New Mexico’s probation and parole systems is limping along as lawmakers near the halfway mark of this year’s 30-day session. House Bill 263, with a large group of sponsors from both parties, is meant primarily to decrease the number of people on probation and parole who are sent back to jail or prison for relatively minor infractions, so-called “technical violations.” Those include some failed drug tests and missing appointments with a probation or parole officer. If passed and signed, the measure would mark the beginning of a shift for the Corrections Department’s Probation and Parole Division — from a punitive approach to a more restorative philosophy. 

That means helping people address the underlying issues that keep them in the criminal justice system instead of trying to ensure public safety with jail cells — particularly when considering people who commit lesser offenses. 

That core purpose of the bill has remained intact over the past year, as legislators have worked on a “compromise” version with state prosecutors and others following a dust-up over the proposed reforms after last year’s legislative session. The state House and Senate passed a broader set of changes in 2019, but they met Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s veto pen after Attorney General Hector Balderas and all 14 of New Mexico’s district attorneys sent her a letter outlined fatal problems as they saw them. In her veto message, Lujan Grisham asked sponsors to meet with the prosecutors and iron out their differences.

DA with six-figure salary claims poverty, judge grants her free lawyer (updated)

Editor’s note:New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur told NMID reporter Jeff Proctor during an interview in late June that he knew nothing about a public defender being appointed for southern New Mexico district attorney Francesca Estevez. On Monday evening, Baur emailed to say, in fact, his office had hired a private attorney, Keren Fenderson, to file a motion on Estevez’s behalf without informing Estevez. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Baur confirmed that he was unaware of the arrangement at the time of the interview with Proctor. Francesca Estevez is too poor to pay for a lawyer. That’s according to state District Judge Douglas Driggers of Las Cruces, who made the finding in a May 1 court order appointing the public defender’s office to represent Estevez as prosecutors pursue alleged violations of the Government Misconduct Act against her.