A inmate walks through pod 6 as he heads to the recreation room Friday. CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth
By Glen Seeber: CNJ staff writer
Now that New Mexico is no longer a frontier state, when you catch a cattle rustler, it isn’t appropriate to string him up from the nearest tree. You’ve got to follow the law, and that includes incarceration.
But in Curry County, as in many counties statewide, incarceration has become a big headache for county commissioners and jail officials. Don Burdine, administrator at the Curry County Adult Detention Center, knows too well the dilemma: Due to overpopulation, he’s having to transport more than 100 inmates to jails out of state, and pay for them out of his local budget.
District Attorney Brett Carter said efforts are made, in many cases, to keep defendants locked up as long as possible — despite the crowded jail conditions.
“Our prime consideration is that we’re looking to protect the community,” he said.
Carter said a number of people accused of sex crimes and of murder are in jail at present, “and we’ve asked for high bonds to keep them in jail while awaiting trial.”
Cell occupants at the detention center include county inmates who are serving time for misdemeanors; convicted felons awaiting transportation to a state facility for sentences of a year or longer; defendants who were sentenced directly or plea-bargained for sentences of 364 or fewer days in the county jail; and arrestees who are waiting either to make bond or to undergo trial, Burdine said.
Because of the structure of the facility, often not even 208 inmates can be housed there at one time, he said. “We have 208 beds, but there are areas where we have beds we can’t put people in.”
For example, the facility has eight isolation cells. But when more than eight inmates need to be kept isolated from the rest of the population, whether due to contagious disease, mental illness or tendency toward violence, then cells designed to hold more inmates must be pressed into duty as isolation cells, he said.
Because of the overcrowding problem, Burdine said, “we’ve been sending them to other facilities in Texas and paying to have them housed there.”
With the recent opening of the new Parmer County facility in Texas, Curry County has begun sending prisoners there. However, Dickens County has continued to accept the majority of exiled inmates, for a total this week of 120, he said.
“When it costs $1,140 for one inmate in a 30-day month, and you have 100 inmates, that costs $114,000 a month,” he said.
“The county is mandated by law to house all wards of the county,” Burdine said. And anyone who is arrested in Curry County becomes a ward of the county.
“We have no control over who comes in, or how long they stay. We have no control over the flow, yet we are mandated to pay for it.”
Even if the person is considered a state prisoner, Burdine said, “if they are in the county facility, we pay for it. The state does not reimburse us.”
But then, what constitutes a state prisoner as opposed to a county prisoner is something that is itself under debate. Burdine said a state prisoner is considered one who is there for parole violation, with no other charges pending.
If the person was stopped for driving under the influence, and determined to be violating parole, the DUI is a new charge and makes him or her a county prisoner, he said. “‘Probation violation’ is considered a new charge, and not a state violation.”
It is his opinion that “anyone sentenced in state court should be a state prisoner,” but that isn’t the way the system is set up.
Adding to the complications is the tendency of the state to leave prisoners with the counties since the prisons also have an overcrowding problem.
“Under state statutes,” said Carter, “if the Department of Corrections is over 100 percent capacity for more than 30 days, they must release nonviolent offenders.”
A commission is in place to review the various cases, and determine who would be best released from prison, he said.
State overcrowding is another issue, Burdine said. “The state is having a problem. They can’t afford to house all of these people in the prisons, so they’re allowing them to plead to (sentences of) less than 364 days, and serve their time in the county jail.”
Regardless of whether the prisoners are held on the state level or the county level, he said, “the taxpayers pay for all of it. It still ends up costing more tax dollars to local citizens.”
There is no simple solution, he said. It will take more prisons, and larger jails, or “a complete change in attitudes and mentality in the judicial system.”