Bad Math And Big Jails

Jerry Ortiz y Pino
5 min read
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There are times when numbers just don't add up. Or rather, they add up, but the answer is all wrong. One of those moments when I had special difficulty wrapping my mind around the “new math” of public policy was in a recent Legislative committee hearing. The meeting was for the virtually automatic confirmation of a pair of very impressive women who had volunteered to serve the state as members of the Parole Board.

It came to light during the hearing that these two women, both residents of Grants, would be expected to handle all the parole hearings for the two prisons in Grants, the men's and the women's.

The men's facility is one of five around New Mexico operated by the State Corrections Department. It is designed to hold about 500 inmates. The women's is the only female prison in the state and is operated by the private company CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) on a state contract. It holds about 600 inmates.

In effect, the two women from Grants are the Parole Board for all of those prisoners. That's because a state with eight adult prisons (five public and three run privately on contracts) can't afford to have full-size parole boards at all sites. So the “Parole Board” is, in effect, comprised of eight separate teams of board members, each of which is responsible for the prisoners housed in their area. The “board” never meets as a unit. The teams are independent reviewers.

That sounds like a huge workload for the individual board members. But, as we were reassured at the hearing, it doesn't much matter, because the Parole Board's hands are almost completely tied anyway.

The determinate sentences now given out under New Mexico law have removed all discretion from the Parole Board's reviews. The reviews are quick, perfunctory scans of plans for the inmates, prepared in advance by a staff member.

Board members are simply given the duty of checking to make sure the parole officers, the paid employees who prepare those plans and who will enforce the terms of the parole, haven't missed some resource in the community that could prove helpful to inmates. Board members aren't allowed to change the plans, but they can add suggestions.

Pardon me for a lack of faith, but such an approach can't possibly work. Our determinate sentencing system is a product of the Reagan-era mindset that the only way to respond to crime is to build more prisons, lengthen sentences and throw away the keys. Forget about rehabilitation: focus on punishment, they'll get the idea.

Wrong. That mindset produced the building boom in jail construction that we experienced through the '90s, but it didn't make us any safer.

It also produced a society in which a higher percentage of our citizens are incarcerated than in any other developed country in the world—and still sees a huge percentage of those locked up reverting to criminal behavior as soon as they're released, apparently unfazed by the lengthy sentences hanging over their heads.

Many states have moved beyond that insanity. They've stopped building more prisons and have chosen instead to figure out how to rehabilitate prisoners, concentrating resources on education, job training, treatment of addictions and supportive services. Those are also, by the way, the states with declining crime rates.

Meanwhile, here in New Mexico we watch the numbers add up all wrong and we still don't get it. Two women on the Grants piece of the parole team plus the complete populations of the two prisons in Grants they are expected to review (with their hands tied) equals the current Administration's plan to create three more adult prisons in New Mexico.

Two and two produces the need for three more prisons. Sort of.

Of course, it does make some kind of crazy logic, I have to admit. Since (and I'm not making this number up) 89 percent of the women who leave the Grants women's facility will wind up back in prison within two years, it isn't surprising that the place is filling up.

The Corrections Department's solution is to build a new prison in Clayton (where the Chamber of Commerce eagerly awaits this “industry”), convert the Springer Boys' School from a juvenile reform school to an adult correctional facility and add a second women's facility at the former Camino Nuevo juvenile center in Albuquerque, this one intended for those with severe emotional problems. There you go: three new warehouses for all the failures of our current system.

I would like to offer an alternative suggestion.

First, stop building new prisons. They only work if they are designed to rehabilitate. Instead, install rehabilitation programming into existing institutions and prevent the need for any new facilities.

Second, let's eliminate determinate sentencing and give some discretion back to Parole Board members. One-size-fits-all justice has proven disastrous.

Finally, since much of recidivism results from parole “violations,” labeling things infractions that are completely legal for those of us not on parole, we should stop using that particular hammer. It's hurting us, as well as the offenders, so we should find a better way to produce compliance.

The goal of our corrections and parole system should be reducing the numbers in prison, not expanding them. That should be the benchmark we use in judging their success … and not the number of jobs we create in Clayton or Springer.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the auhor. E-mail

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