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Report Finds Systemic Waste, Unproven Programming in New Mexico's Prisons 825 words

A New Mexico legislative committee is perplexed by the state's $2-million giveaway to GEO Group, since the Florida-based private-prison company has cut staff at one prison but continues to charge New Mexico's Corrections Department (NMCD) as if it's still employing the same number of staff.

A June 2012 report from the state's Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), in partnership with the Pew Center on the States, uncovered the fiscal waste among deeply systemic issues within NMCD, including poor parole planning and problems with "unproven” programs that are meant to lower recidivism rates—all amid projections that New Mexico's prison population will exceed capacity within the next decade.

"The NMCD has potential to reduce costs and improve public safety," said the report, which was prepared by the committee's nine-person program evaluation team. "However, the NMCD currently suffers from gaps in program oversight, ineffective use of resources, and patterns of inefficient spending."

In March 2012, an amended contract between NMCD and Lea County for the operation of the state prison in Hobbs, N.M., reduced prison staff by 32 full-time employees (FTE). But GEO Group, the for-profit company that runs the Hobbs prison—and has been forced to pay fines to NMCD totaling more than $1 million for understaffing in Hobbs—continues to charge the state the same per-diem rates.

"The NMCD should accompany any cost-saving measures agreed to in contract, such as reductions in required FTE, with measured reductions in per-diem rates for private prisons which could provide an estimated $2 million in savings to the state at (the Hobbs prison)," the report recommended. The committee, in fact, found opportunities for recurring savings to NMCD in several areas.

The NMCD spent nearly $300 million in fiscal year 2011, according to the report, to imprison 6,700 offenders statewide and supervise another 18,000 every day. Within three years of release, 46% of those prisoners—and 53% within five years of release—will return to prison, the report said. Reducing those recidivism rates by 10% could save NMCD $8.3 million in prison costs, and "could reduce victimization costs by an estimated $40 million."

Currently, NMCD funds more than 40 in-prison programs, but the department admits that less than a quarter of them have been empirically-proven to reduce recidivism. The LFC thus recommended that New Mexico adopts a cost-benefit analysis model developed by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy—and supported by the Pew Center on the States—that could lower crime and incarceration rates and save NMCD millions every year.

The model could end up eliminating programs like an anger management class called "Cage Your Rage;" a "grief and loss" program; a relaxation group; and an art therapy class—none of which, according to the report, have been shown to be evidence-based nor have their results been evaluated by NMCD.

"There is a growing national movement toward evidence-based programs in corrections," the report said. The Pew Center, the LFC added, "reports that evidence-based corrections programs can reduce recidivism by up to 30%, but programs that are not evidence-based tend to see no decrease and (could cause) even a slight increase in crime."

The LFC report also found that NMCD's use of "in-house parole"—which is used when prisoners cannot find housing or because of administrative issues—costs the state $10 million a year and "could undermine public safety." About 40% of NMCD in-house parolees are listed as "hard-to-place" because of insufficient community resources or because prisoners can't afford to be put on the street. Another 40% of in-house parolees, according to the report, "are working through pending administrative issues which have delayed their parole to the community, including erroneous or missing paperwork, pending parole plans and pending parole board action."

As a result, the LFC recommended, "NMCD should pay the cost of halfway-house placement for (prisoners) where it can be demonstrated that the (prisoner) does not have funding... and should consider paying the first few months of rent for (prisoners) entering parole."

NMCD and the state's parole board, the report added, should meet quarterly to overcome delays to parole and "initiate procedural reforms."

The report also made recommendations that aren't likely to be supported by prisoner advocates and drug-law reformers. First, the LFC proposed sending prisoners with a year or less remaining on their sentences to county jails throughout the state, which would require statutory changes. The report argued that the 33 offenders sentenced to less than a year in NMCD in 2011 cost the department more than $680,000.

Finally, the report recommended that the state reverses its trend of cutting funding for drug courts, which have been hailed by the Pew Center "as an effective evidence-based practice," according to the LFC. Currently, NMCD staffs the state's largest drug court, which is operating at its lowest level in three years. The report called on the state legislature to appropriate an increase in drug-court funding.

Sources: State of New Mexico, Legislative Finance Committee, "New Mexico Corrections Department: Reducing Recidivism, Cutting Costs and Improving Public Safety in the Incarceration and Supervision of Adult Offenders," June 2012; The Santa Fe New Mexican


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