I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Task force: State finances limit prison reform efforts
New Mexico should study the merits of an early controlled release pilot project for non-violent women prisoners and establish re-entry councils across New Mexico, a governor-appointed prison reform task force has recommended.
The task force’s recommendations came in a report issued last week, but while suggesting the consideration of an early-release program and other initiatives, the report does not include beefing up the corrections department’s education programs due to state financial troubles.
The state corrections department‘s education bureau has 27 vacancies out of 111 jobs, meaning up to a quarter of inmates might not be in classes, Gail Oliver, the agency’s former deputy cabinet secretary for re-entry, told the Independent recently.
Prison education programs are often cited as a major key to reducing recidivism, with some studies concluding that participants in educational programs are 10 percent to 20 percent less prone to re-offend.
Gov. Bill Richardson appointed the prison reform group last year with one overriding goal: to recommend ways to reduce the rate of recidivism, the rate of offenders who return to lockup within 36 months after their release.
At 47 percent, New Mexico’s recidivism rate is lower than the national average of 52 percent. But it was enough for the Richardson administration to raise alarms.
The same prison task force in a report issued last year emphasized the importance of education in reducing recidivism and urged the state to do more for offenders—even to the point of starting charter schools in prisons.
Noting the state’s moribund finances — the state faces a $440 million budgetary shortfall, the task force’s chairman, John Bigelow, in the report issued last week acknowledged that the “major challenge to the full implementation of reentry and prison reform initiatives is the ongoing economic crisis.” Bigelow goes on to note that its recommendations shouldn’t cost the state more money.
As is the case in corrections departments around the country, this department has experienced large funding cuts, is in the midst of a hiring freeze, and budget expansion requests for reentry and prison reform staffing are unlikely to be forthcoming in the near future.
While last week’s report does not specifically recommend adding staff to the agency’s education bureau, it does recommend reassigning “existing staff as necessary and appropriate to maximize intellectual and experiential resources and to ensure the success of reentry initiatives.”
Bigelow called the local re-entry councils the task force’s most important recommendation. Such councils would operate in key communities across the state and would help prison officials by providing information and resources “in the areas of alcohol and substance abuse, education, employment, family services, gender-specific programming and others, said a press release announcing the task force’s recommendations.
The Corrections Department will work to create the first of these councils in a community yet to be determined by the end of this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Richardson praised the task force’s work.
“These recommendations are important steps to slamming shut the revolving door in our prisons and plugging the financial drain of a bulging inmate population,” Richardson said in a press release issued Tuesday. “They will help us sharpen our focus on keeping incarcerated individuals from reoffending after their release by helping them become productive citizens.”
Other actions the task force recommended were:
1. Create and support local Reentry Councils in collaboration with community
stakeholders throughout the state – Implement reentry council pilot project in community to be determined by the end of fiscal year 10.
2. Commence reentry and prison reform public education campaigns.
3. Enhance the role of faith-based services for formerly incarcerated persons, including statewide Adopt-a-Citizen program (“One Church – One Citizen”).
4. Increase availability of transitional and supportive living programs for formerly incarcerated persons.
5. Expand the use of drug courts as a means of decreasing prison census and encourage administrators to allow participants to access medication assisted treatment while under the jurisdiction of the court.
6. Increase the number of community mentoring programs for formerly incarcerated persons.
7. Direct programs and services to prisoners identified as high risk and high need by the COMPAS risk and needs assessment.
8. Discuss with the judiciary, the use of COMPAS risk and needs assessment in presentencing decision-making.
9. Examine, within the parameters of public safety, re-establishing work release programs for low custody prisoners.
10. Examine, within the parameters of public safety, implementing an early controlled release pilot project for non-violent women prisoners, and examine the use of earned meritorious deductions for parolees as allowed by existing statute.
11. Develop the Family Justice Project’s Reentry is Relational project to increase the number of sites and ensure project sustainability.