Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Counties spending $1 in every $3 on detention

New Mexico’s county governments are spending increasing amounts on keeping fewer people behind bars in county jails, the New Mexico Association of Counties told lawmakers Monday.

The nonprofit lobbies on behalf of all 33 New Mexico counties and also manages insurance for the governmental bodies.

General counsel for the group, Grace Philips, began lobbying lawmakers on the Courts, Corrections and Justice interim committee to increase payments from the state to counties for jailing people.

“Jail populations have definitely gone down,” Philips told the committee, noting the average daily population for 2022 was 5,210 people, compared to the peak of more than 8,500 people in 2005.

Philips said that people in detention, for the most part, have not been convicted of anything, but are awaiting hearings.

For the 25 counties operating jails, they spent a total of $336.8 million on jail operations, personnel, and medical expenses at adult facilities last year — out of $1.1 billion across those counties’ general funds. Counties build general funds by collecting local taxes on property, or for goods and services, or fees for utilities and other programs.

“On average, one of every three general dollars is going to detention,” Philips said, adding that for some counties it’s closer to spending $1 for every $2.

She said rising jail costs can impact other county responsibilities, like road maintenance, administering elections, emergency services, senior center operations and even trash collection.

The estimated amount budgeted for jail operations next year by the 25 counties is about $383 million, a more than $46 million dollar increase, Philips said.

A graphic from the New Mexico Association of Counties presentation to lawmakers in the Corrections, Courts and Justice interim committee on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. (Courtesy New Mexico Association of Counties)

Katherine Crociata, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Association of Counties, requested the legislature put more funding to reimbursing counties for incarceration expenses in the upcoming 2024 session.

On behelf of counties, Crociata requested lawmakers to:

  •     Provide $7.5 million to the County Detention Facility Reimbursement Fund, to pay counties the cost of housing felony offenders.
  •     Appropriate $10 million for the Detention and Corrections Workforce Capacity Building Fund established in the 2023 legislative session to increase pay, recruit and retain county detention officers.
  •     Create a line-item in the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration budget for $750,000 to pay counties for transporting people in state custody.

Increasing costs, little to no savings

County jails are not profitable on the whole, the New Mexico Association of Counties said, showing the data from operating jails in 25 counties.

Correction officer salaries in New Mexico right now account for more than $150 million, nearly half of the budget for the 25 county-run jails in the state.

Operations consume nearly one-third of jail budgets, costing county governments statewide $104 million. Medical costs for people held in jails amounts to just under one-fourth of annual jail budgets, at $64 million.

The remaining $16 million goes to capital costs, such as updating facilities.

Last year, New Mexico counties that run detention centers only received $40 million in jail revenues. About $23 million of that revenue came from the U.S. government for counties to detain people in federal custody.

Counties paid other county governments in New Mexico about $8.9 million for keeping inmates in other county jails.

The state paid $4.6 million to counties on behalf of people arrested by state police and kept in county jails. Municipal governments paid $3.5 million, based on agreements hammered out between city and county to pay a per-bed per-person cost of people arrested by municipal police departments.

Revenues amount to about 11% of the expense of running jails, Philips said, meaning counties are eating the cost to incarcerate people on behalf of the agencies that make the most arrests — municipal and state police.

“When state police arrest someone and bring them to jail, how much do you think the state pays for that housing?” Philips asked rhetorically. “The big zero — the state does not pay for that.”

Philips said detention centers have high fixed costs, so unless counties close down parts of the facility, or shutter it entirely, they don’t see savings.

Data gaps remain

For years, New Mexico was unique, because it held significantly more people in jails compared to its prison population, Philips said, jailing people at the second highest rate in the nation behind one other state.

A screengrab of the New Mexico Association of Counties data for New Mexico jail populations compared to average prison populations. (Courtesy of New Mexico Association of Counties)

Jail populations rose to a peak of more than 8,500 in 2005, Philips said. They declined in recent years, and dipped sharply after 2020, during portions of the pandemic, which included the temporary shutdowns of courts.

New Mexico is holding fewer people in jails, but the jail population is rising again, more slowly this time, she said.

Jail populations are based on two factors: how many people are booked into jail, and how long they stay. Philips said the increase now isn’t about more bookings but longer wait times before court hearings.

“The longer it takes someone to go through, then your population in your jail increases,” she said.

Philips told lawmakers there’s been no long-term tracking on jail data statewide by the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, which is the custodian of the data. Instead, she said, the studies have been infrequent and only on a sample of counties.

“We’ve never had a statewide — every detention facility — longitudinal study where we can really see: How are people moving? How long are they in for? And what are the trends?” Philips said. “I’m disappointed in that, it is really something that would be money well spent.”

Philips said some of the data available is outdated, pointing to numbers for length of stays for people with serious mental illness that are 10 years old.

“People with serious mental illness stay in custody longer than anybody else,” she said. “We have a lot of opinions about that, but we don’t have the hard facts. I wish we did.”

Rep. Andrea Reeb (R-Clovis) asked if there’s any data on how many people are serving felony sentences in county jails, and whether the state is reimbursing for those.

Philips responded that people with felony sentences shorter than one year, or who need certain medical treatment for substance use disorder, are still being held in county jails, but there’s not a “concrete” number.

She cited examples in Bernalillo County where people are kept in the Metropolitan Detention Center because their treatment programs cannot transfer with them to prisons since the state Corrections Department cannot conduct the treatment.

“The Corrections Department does not currently provide methadone maintenance or suboxone,” Philips said. “So, sometimes people, I was shocked to learn, are kept at MDC, which you’ve got to remember that jails are not meant to be long-term housing facilities.”

Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque), asked if lawmakers should set up an automatic billing system for counties to charge the state.

“Right now, the Corrections Department has no incentive to change its probation, parole practices, and that might provide one,” she said.

Philips responded, “we love that idea.”

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