Curry County leaders scrambling to control overcrowding and a burgeoning jail budget are taking a more serious look at two alternatives — community service and the decriminalization of traffic offenses.
Jail Administrator Keith Norwood thinks it’s time Curry County had a community service or work release program, allowing people to serve their time outside the confines of a jail cell.
Norwood is drafting a policy for consideration by county commissioners, the first step toward creating a program he is convinced could solve some overcrowding.
“We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them,” said Norwood, explaining work release would be strictly reserved for people sentenced for minor, non-violent offenses.
“We would really look at their charges and record,” said Norwood. “Does this individual really need to be in jail? If it’s a first (non-violent) offense or just traffic … put him in a program that allows him to keep his job and still perform some community service to pay his debt.”
Commission Chairman Caleb Chandler said overcrowding forces the county to place excess prisoners in out-of-state facilities. “That cost us somewhere around $800,000 last year,” Chandler said.
“So we have to come up with some way to decrease that cost to the taxpayers.”
Chandler is also championing a new statewide push to decriminalize minor traffic offenses. Such a change would require action by the Legislature. But it would make serving jail time to pay off traffic fines a court of last resort.
The most recent count of inmates at the Curry County jail shows more than half — 150 out of an average daily population of 230 — are serving time for traffic offenses.
At a cost to the county of $50 a day per inmate, it’s an estimated $2.7 million annual expense to local taxpayers; one county officials believe can be cut significantly by changing the way traffic offenses are handled in New Mexico.
Now, according to Chandler, hard-core offenders appearing in court are usually given one choice — come up with the cash or serve jail time with a court credit of $58 for each day served applied as credit to the fine and court costs.
“Some of these traffic offenders,” said Chandler, “end up with multiple offenses and every time they appear a $100 bench fee is attached. So it’s not uncommon for them to have fines of $7,000 or more.”
Chandler said many simply opt to serve the time. The court gives them credit and the county treasury absorbs the cost.
Chandler chairs a New Mexico Courts committee — the Court Re-engineering Commission — that is drafting legislation models state lawmakers can introduce in January.
Chandler said the goal is get minor traffic offenses such as speeding or running a stop sign changed to civil infractions, a change already made by more than half the states in the U.S. Fines assessed by the courts could then be enforced using civil procedures, such as garnishing wages and tax refunds or using collection agencies.
Chandler said courts would likely still retain the option to sentence scofflaws to jail time, but it would usually be exercised after all other collection attempts have failed.
Regarding the 150 inmates now serving time in Curry County on traffic offenses, both Chandler and Norwood said they still don’t know how many may also be serving time for other offenses. Norwood and his staff are trying to break that down.
“I’m sure a lot of those people are in jail for something else,” said Chandler, adding, “Even if it’s 20 people, at $50 a day … that would be a significant number.”
Chandler said during committee hearings, the jail administrator for Dona Ana County estimated inmates serving time for just traffic offenses cost them $2 million a year
Arthur Pepin, director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, said Chandler’s committee is looking at two options to present the Legislature.
“We’re hoping,” said Pepin, “either we can propose a comprehensive change (decriminalization) this session. The governor would have to agree because it is a budget session. Or, if we can’t do that … we could at least remove the criminal penalties for a number of citations.”