Spirit of collaboration reins in jail costs in New Mexico

By: Lisa Simpson

Costs Featured Jurisdictions Interagency Collaboration June 23, 2015

By the fall of 2013, Bernalillo County, New Mexico—and the City of Albuquerque before it—had been entangled for almost 20 years in a federal lawsuit regarding conditions at its local jail, the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC). Persistent overcrowding at MDC thwarted all efforts to settle the lawsuit. The facility was under a court order limiting the jail population to 1,950, but by the fall of 2013, the population was hovering at around 2,600. In order to comply with the court order, the county was renting out-of-county jail beds to house as many as 622 people in facilities as far away as Polk County, Texas, all at a cost of $10 million annually. In addition to the immense cost, these measures significantly impacted the incarcerated people and their families, as well as the criminal justice system’s ability to operate efficiently.

The financial costs and negative impacts were unsustainable. Construction of a new jail unit or temporary facilities was similarly unaffordable, as well as ill-advised since the county was incarcerating people at almost twice the national rate. The county’s ability to reduce the jail population was also limited, as almost every imaginable strategy to reduce the jail population required the collaboration of several, if not all, criminal justice stakeholders, including the police, the courts, and prosecutors. But they had been unable to come together to effectively tackle the problem.

In response, the county sought and obtained legislation creating the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Review Commission in July 2013. The commission, headed by the Supreme Court’s Administrative Office of the Courts, brought together a range of local criminal justice stakeholders to seek ways to reduce the jail population. At the same time, the county created a “core working group”—a smaller group comprised of judges from the District Court (which handles felonies) and Metro Court (which handles misdemeanors), the courts’ two pretrial agencies, the district attorney’s office, and the public defender’s office—focused on implementing strategies to reduce the number of people in the jail. Although originating independently, the two entities soon began working closely together.

Stakeholders were able to vet their ideas with one another, and agreed-upon initiatives began to emerge. Initiatives that came from this collaborative process faced less opposition to implementation, particularly as many of the initiatives were low or no cost. For example, one strategy identified through this process was to reduce the time defendants waited for a probation violation hearing from 30 days to 15. Because almost a quarter of the people in jail were waiting for probation violation hearings, reducing the time it took for a case to be disposed (usually by reinstatement of probation) substantially reduced the jail population.

Nothing helped the process more than seeing results. Past inertia had been in part due to what appeared to be the futility of the effort. As the jail population started dropping, however, the enthusiasm for change grew. The stakeholders continued to work collaboratively, but also began independently identifying and implementing improvements within their own agencies. More and more, ideas were brought to the table and the dialogue was focused on how to make things work as opposed to why they wouldn’t work. While the county provided staff to help move these ideas to fruition, the collaboration of the stakeholders was the key. Not much more than a year later, the jail population has decreased by almost 40 percent, to fewer than 1,600. People are no longer sent out of the county to be jailed, one MDC 64-bed housing pod has been closed, and jail conditions have improved.

The spirit of collaboration demonstrated that incarceration levels are within our control. And it continues as we learn that implementing best practices, reducing jail costs, improving the operation of the criminal justice system, reducing crime and recidivism, and improving the lives of county residents are compatible—if not concurrent—goals.

This post was originally published by the Vera Institute of Justice’s Current Thinking blog. More information about Bernalillo County can be found in Vera’s recently released report, The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration.