Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

MDC seeks $2.1M under N.M. emergency order that sends more state patrols to Albuquerque

More police are patrolling Albuquerque under the state’s recent gun-violence public health order, potentially sending hundreds more people to the Metropolitan Detention Center in the coming weeks, so the short-staffed local jail is asking for millions in funding.

MDC will likely see a spike in the number of people being incarcerated before they go to trial since the order instructs State Police to send additional officers to the city, and officials are requesting $2.1 million from the state’s governor to handle it.

In a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Sept. 14, the Bernalillo County government asked for $2.1 million in “emergency public health funding” to reopen four cell pods to make space for more people to be incarcerated.

“These pods will require correctional officers to supervise the inmates, creating additional posts and overtime,” County Manager Julie Morgas Baca wrote. 

Officials are also looking to send more inmates to other jails around the state to avoid overfilling MDC. 

“MDC will need to secure agreements with other jails to ensure our count does not exceed our mandated population capacity,” Morgas Baca wrote.

Crowding and conditions at the jail have sparked litigation for decades, leading to court-ordered reforms at the jail under an agreement known as the McClendon settlement

The jail’s funding request marks the first and so far only time a local government has asked for funding under the public health order enacted on Sept. 9. A spokesperson for the governor confirmed on Friday they received Morgas Baca’s letter.

The governor’s Senior Public Safety Advisor Ben Baker and former State Police chief Pete Kassetas, Lujan Grisham’s newly hired crime commissioner, “are in active conversation with leaders from Bernalillo County and MDC,” Caroline Sweeney said.

Capacity and crowding

A federal judge blocked part of the order restricting firearms in the county on Sept. 13, but left the rest of it in place, including a surge of New Mexico State Police officers into the county to arrest people on outstanding warrants.

The county anticipates an additional 350 people heading to jail as a result of the “initial roundup,” which would fill MDC to its limit, Morgas Baca wrote.

New Mexico State Police confirmed the dispatch of extra officers to “assist local agencies in criminal enforcement” but have not said how many officers will go into the area and for how long.

State Police Public Information Officer Ray Wilson said on Sept. 14 the agency was “still in the initial process of developing an operational plan.”

Bennett Baur, the state’s chief public defender, said state officials need to consider how they spend their money on clearing warrants.

While having police go to someone’s house is necessary in some cases, Baur said, it is one of the most dangerous ways to approach the situation — for both police and the people they are trying to arrest.

“There’s no evidence that those people are committing more crimes than the general population,” Baur told Source New Mexico on Thursday. “We have to look at what is the best way for public safety to address that, and just talking about law enforcement going to people’s homes or rounding them up in the community is not only not cost effective, but in many ways creates more dangerous situations.”

The safe surrender program, where people turn themselves in over Zoom, has proven “extremely successful and cost effective,” Baur said, getting hundreds of people’s cases back on track.

Morgas Baca wrote that in the last six months, the jail has held an average of 1,460 people, at one point reaching a high of 1,600 people. More than 22 full-time guards would be needed to oversee the four extra cell pods, according to a breakdown by MDC Warden Jason Jones attached to the county manager’s letter.

Twenty-six people have died at the jail since 2020, the Albuquerque Journal reported at the time the public health order came down.

Sending in the guard

The day after the county manager’s letter, Lujan Grisham narrowed the public health order and told reporters in the Bernalillo County Commission chambers that she’s willing to send help from three state agencies to alleviate staff shortages at the jail.

Lack of staffing, space and “prompt screening” of people arrested and taken to the jail are a “significant contributor to these public health emergencies by keeping police officers off the streets while they wait for arrestees to be processed,” Health Secretary Patrick Allen wrote in the updated order.

Kassetas said during the Sept. 15 news conference announcing the modified order that an officer was stuck at the jail for four hours the day before trying to book someone they had arrested “because booking was full.”

“The governor has asked us for solutions, and we’re going to come up with: How do we speed those processes up to get those officers back out in the streets in the metro to be proactive?” Kassetas said.

Lujan Grisham said the N.M. National Guard, the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and the Department of Corrections stand ready to go into the Metropolitan Detention Center.

“If we can use Guard or Homeland Security personnel or Corrections personnel — which today we believe we can — to stand up bookings and medical screenings, we’re going to do that,” she said.

That need has to be identified by county officials, she said, “but there is some degree of discussion about whether or not that’s immediately necessary.”

“Instead of waiting to have the data and have everyone agree, what’s on first, what’s on second, we’re just going to make sure that we’re ready to stand it up and invest immediately,” Lujan Grisham said.

Morgas Baca told Source New Mexico on Tuesday that jail staff will see how things go under the emergency order, and weigh how and whether to take the governor up on her offer. “Any changes made at MDC would be in conjunction with our medical partner, UNM Hospital, and in accordance with our requirements under the federal McClendon settlement,” she said.

The doctors in charge of medical care at the jail say they are not asking for help.

Turmoil at the state’s biggest jail: Staff members flee as crises unfold

A spokesperson for UNM Hospital confirmed Tuesday they are not requesting assistance from the governor for health care staffing.

Since UNMH took over care at the jail, they “have made a significant number of hires and we continue to hire to ensure we are providing the high- quality care that UNM Hospital is known for,” said spokesperson Christopher Ramirez.

It would not be the first time that the New Mexico National Guard has been sent into the jail.

The Bernalillo County Commission asked for the Guard’s help in January 2022 after a psychiatric nurse warned that the medical and psychiatric staff shortage — compounded by a lack of correctional officers — is a “recipe for disaster.”

Next up: The presumption of innocence

The jail’s request comports with the governor’s yearslong push to keep more people behind bars before trial.

Changing the law to make it easier for prosecutors to hold people who are accused but not convicted of a crime in jail has been a top priority of Lujan Grisham, Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman and other prominent Democrats in the Roundhouse.

It has faced stiff opposition from lawmakers, public defenders and civil rights advocates who say it would overturn New Mexicans’ fundamental right to due process and the legal presumption in the U.S. that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

The criminal legal system in New Mexico is not very good at deciding who actually needs to be in jail, Baur said.

“The bureaucracy of arrests and processing is frankly broken,” he said. “There are so many people that are in jail that don’t need to be in jail.”

When Lujan Grisham first announced the new public health order, she said she will continue to push for this change in upcoming legislative sessions.

“I think, following the federal system, and having a rebuttable presumption — that if it’s a repeat, and violent offender — that those folks should have no ability to be released, pending that rebuttable debate about why they’re not too dangerous to be held until the trial,” she said. “I’ll ask for that again, and I have asked for any number of criminal penalty enhancements.”

Update 8:58 a.m., Sept 22, 2023:

This story has been updated with a response from the governor’s office.

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