Children and pregnant women no longer allowed in solitary confinement in NM

A long-sought set of reforms to the way New Mexico jailers and prison officials use solitary confinement kicked in July 1, barring the practice for certain populations and starting the clock on what civil rights advocates and lawmakers hope will lead to unprecedented transparency on the controversial practice in the state. Effectively immediately, pregnant women and children can no longer be held in solitary, and beginning in November prisons and jails around the state will start publicly reporting how many people are being held in solitary. Insufficient data has for years frustrated lawmakers’ and others’ ability to understand the scale at which solitary confinement is used in the state’s jails and prisons. 

State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of  House Bill 364 during the legislative session that concluded in March, sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and officials who run the 33 county jails across New Mexico, reminding them of the new statute’s requirements. Among the changes is the state’s first universal definition for solitary confinement: holding someone in a cell alone for 22 or more hours a day “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction.”

Previously, jails and prisons were using a patchwork set of labels and standards to categorize solitary confinement, often frustrating lawmakers’ and others’ efforts to snap a true picture of how the tactic was used in New Mexico. The measure required prisons and jails to stop keeping children and pregnant women in solitary — except in extremely rare instances — on July 1.

Bringing sunshine to human rights settlements nears finish

A bill that would make information about state agency settlements involving sexual harassment and other discrimination claims more accessible to the public is a step away from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk after clearing an important committee

The House Judiciary unanimously passed SB 317 after a short discussion Wednesday. The legislation would require posting to the state Sunshine Portal amounts of taxpayer dollars paid out in individual settlements related to human rights, including sexual harassment and discrimination based on disability, sexual orientation and race, and the state agencies that are involved. Currently, it is difficult to find out about such complaints across the many agencies in state government or to know when information about individual settlements become public. The bill does not require names be published on the Sunshine Portal, so as “to not discourage anyone from filing claims,” said Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, co-sponsor of the bill, “but we do want to know when those claims are being paid out.” Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of the bill, said that the bill speeds up when the information is made public.

Legislature fleshes out details of ethics commission in 2019

Three-quarters of voters in November supported enshrining an independent ethics commission in the state Constitution, making New Mexico one of more than 40 states with similar oversight bodies. Just getting an ethics commission took more than a decade and contentious year-in, year-out legislative debates. But the most the difficult year may be 2019. State lawmakers over the next 60 days will make big decisions about the seven-member commission: how much power it has, how much funding it gets, and, perhaps thorniest of all, how open and transparent its work will be. These questions will revive old battle lines from the past nearly 15 years when a bipartisan collection of supporters in the Legislature annually squared off against an equally bipartisan coalition of opponents.

As immigration debate rages, private prison operators spread cash to NM pols

Two of the nation’s largest private prison companies have given nearly $33,000 to New Mexico’s congressional representatives and state lawmakers over the past year and a half, a review of campaign finance records by New Mexico In Depth shows. The two operators — the GEO Group Inc. and CoreCivic, which have maintained a major presence in New Mexico for decades — have come in for criticism over the years from immigration attorneys and advocates for warehousing immigrants under multiple presidential administrations. The focus has sharpened as the nation debates the Trump administration’s stepped-up immigration enforcement policies at the border. Across the country the two private prison operators have spent considerable money to influence government policy and have made sizable profits from detaining immigrants in their facilities, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The institute is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide.

High-profile DWI cases spotlight complicated world of legal conflicts

For the second time in a year, Albuquerque police officer Joshua Montaño found himself handcuffing a high-profile politico with ties to Gov. Susana Martinez. Montaño arrested state Rep. Monica Youngblood on May 20 on suspicion of aggravated drunken driving, first offense, after he believed she performed poorly on field sobriety tests at a DWI checkpoint on Albuquerque’s west side, then refused to take a breath-alcohol test. A year to the day earlier, on May 20, 2017, the veteran DWI officer arrested one of the state’s most influential political insiders, former Martinez Environment Department secretary and current New Mexico Oil and Gas Association President Ryan Flynn, on suspicion of DWI. Flynn’s case was dismissed; Youngblood’s is just beginning to wend its way through the courts. Given the Albuquerque Republican’s high-profile stance as a Martinez-friendly, tough-on-crime legislator, her unopposed victory in the June 5 primary election and calls for her to abandon her legislative seat, Youngblood’s arrest has kicked up a political stir.

Trujillo says “establishment” going after him; campaign records suggest that’s not the case

State Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, has raised more money than any other state legislative candidate except for the chamber’s two top lawmakers — a majority coming from big industries, political action committees and professional lobbyists, groups often thought of as “establishment,” a review by New Mexico In Depth shows. Trujillo, a three-term Democrat, is fighting for his political life after a woman working for an animal rights organization on Wednesday accused him of retaliating against her several years ago by stalling legislation after she rejected his sexual advances. Laura Bonar’s allegations came in an open letter released Wednesday, five weeks before the June primary, and a week before early primary voting starts in the race for legislative District 46,which stretches from Santa Fe to Española. Whoever wins June 5 — Trujillo or his primary opponent Andrea Romero — will most likely represent the district in the 2019 Legislature, although it’s possible a write-in or independent candidate could prevail. In two emails sent in response to Bonar’s letter, Trujillo said he barely knew Bonar, and described her as a tool of the establishment who is cynically using the #MeToo movement as a political weapon.

New tools for following the money in New Mexico

It can be tough to figure out how private money influences government as it flows through the political process. Not only are there gaps in required reporting about money and gifts showered on politicians and elected officials, the data that is publicly available is often unwieldy to work with, found in hundreds of individual reports or in spreadsheets that may have both duplicative and missing data. One of our jobs as journalists is to make sense of it all, so that it informs our reporting on the political and governance process. At New Mexico In Depth, we’ve acquired skills and tools that help us crack open large sets of data, and we are able to work with talented data analysts and coders. But we also believe it’s super important for the public to be able to search data, bringing their own knowledge to bear on the issue of how money affects political outcomes.

Lobbying disclosure bill sees the light at the end of the tunnel

With less than 48 hours left in this year’s 30-day session, legislation that would force lobbyists to return to an old standard of disclosing what they spend to influence public officials, including state lawmakers, might make it to the governor’s desk. House leadership says Senate Bill 67 won’t face challenges if it comes to the House floor. The bill would  restore  to 100 percent the amount of expenditures lobbyists are required to publicly report. It cleared the Senate last week, and  passed with little debate through its first House committee this morning. Next step is passing the House Judiciary Committee.