Police reform bills sweep the virtual statehouse, but outcome uncertain

A year of tumult over race and policing is coming to a head in New Mexico’s busy legislative session. With just weeks to go before it ends on March 20, lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills aimed at reforming law enforcement and several have progressed through committees. As a share of total introduced legislation, bills related to policing doubled this year over previous sessions, according to data from Legislative Council Service. 

But it’s uncertain whether the state, which has one of the highest rates of fatal police shootings in the country, will take significant action. Save a requirement passed in last July’s special session that law enforcement statewide wear body cameras, the Legislature hasn’t enacted any major legislation related to policing in years. According to Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the quantity of proposals this year reflects the urgency of the moment.

Push to end private prisons stymied by concerns for local economies

Three years ago, New Mexico incarcerated about 7,400 people. Since then, the prison population has dropped, mirroring a national trend. It’s estimated that by 2025 the average prison population could be 4,938. The reasons for the declining prison population are unclear, according to a report prepared by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico for the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.  

But if that trend continues, legislative analysts say, the Department of Corrections would have to find just 456 new beds, on average, if New Mexico were to end the use of private prisons after more than two decades and transfer all privately held prisoners to public facilities by 2025.The statistic is buried in a legislative analysis prepared for lawmakers considering legislation introduced by Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, the latest attempt to end New Mexico’s use of private prisons.

NM jails report 900 new virus cases since June as population numbers tick back up

New Mexico’s jail population dropped by a third earlier this year as officials agreed to incarcerate fewer people to avoid the spread COVID-19. But the population has crept back up since June and infections have soared among both inmates and staff from 37 cases by early June to nearly 970 as of September 25, according to government data reviewed by New Mexico In Depth. It’s not clear whether more crowded jails, along with their decreased chances for social distancing, has spiked the case numbers. Virus cases have dramatically increased in a handful of jails in counties where cases have remained stubbornly high outside the walls — and officials say inmates are entering the jails already infected, identified by testing as they are booked. 

But the increases in cases and populations have renewed discussions about how to ensure the virus doesn’t spread further inside jails and the communities they serve. Officials hope to repeat the success of the low infection numbers through the pandemic’s first few months, when law enforcement, judges, jail administrators, prosecutors and defense lawyers cooperated to keep jail populations down.

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%.

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.

‘Major milestone’: Governor’s budget targets hepatitis C epidemic in prisons

Nearly half of the people in New Mexico’s state prisons are infected with hepatitis C, and for years, the Corrections Department has only purchased enough medicine to treat a fraction of them. But that may be about to change. The executive budget proposal Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham released Jan. 6 recommends $30 million in new funding for the Corrections Department for treatment of hepatitis C, with the expectation of curing most inmates by the end of 2024. This parallels an expansion of treatment taking place in other prison systems across the country, and would eliminate a focal point of New Mexico’s epidemic.It appears the money will pass muster with state lawmakers.