The co-chairman of New Mexico Legislature’s Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee is calling for outside oversight of the state Corrections Department, citing the agency’s ever increasing budget and poor scores on performance measures.
“I think it’s time,” Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said during a subcommittee meeting Friday, adding that oversight should be authorized during the next legislative session.
Maestas said he meant “no disrespect to the [department’s] leadership” but said that because of the way the agency is structured, it is “kind of off in the corner” and doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
During the meeting, members of the subcommittee were briefed on a legislative report that said New Mexico’s prisons were “more violent and understaffed” in fiscal year 2020 than in fiscal year 2019 and that the agency had shown “no improvement in its ability to rehabilitate offenders and prevent them from reentering the prison system.”
Despite those facts, the department has proposed eliminating a number of performance measures, such as the number of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults, correctional officer vacancy rates and recidivism rates going into fiscal year 2022. The department feels the benchmarks don’t accurately reflect its performance, legislative analyst Ellen Rabin said.
The Corrections Department has requested a budget of $379.1 million for fiscal year 2021, according to the Legislative Finance Committee, $20.7 million more than it received in fiscal year 2020.
Despite falling prison populations, the department’s recidivism rate is higher than it has been in nearly a decade, Rabin said during her presentation to the subcommittee.
Lawmakers said the agency historically has been resistant to outside oversight and uncooperative with legislative fact-finding missions aimed at evaluating its programs — often failing to produce requested data.
“We actually tried this more than 10 years ago,” said Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque. “What we got from corrections was, ‘Well, we don’t need that. We have to be certified by national boards and commissions, so we don’t really need your help. Thank you anyway.’ ”
Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison did not respond to questions Friday from The New Mexican regarding the report’s findings.
The subcommittee heard from a national expert on prison reform who outlined how other states have incorporated prison oversight, including legislative committees, citizen boards and ombudsman programs that would give inmates and their family members somewhere to take their complaints about prison conditions.
Maestas and Chasey both said it’s difficult for unpaid citizen legislators to provide the level of oversight the department needs. Maestas said the agency has an “ability to withstand any reform efforts” by lawmakers by simply waiting them out.
Maestas said it was “brazen” of the department to request performance measures be discontinued while at the same time requesting budget increases and resisting efforts by lawmakers to hold the department accountable.
“A few years ago, a Department of Corrections official just said, ‘Why are you asking us questions? Just give us the money,’ ” Maestas said.
Maestas — whose uncle, Dwight Duran, filed a lawsuit that resulted in a federal consent decree calling for reforms in the state prison system following a bloody prisoner uprising in 1980 — said reform efforts appear to have dwindled since provisions of the decree have been gradually retired.
“We are 40 years and eight months removed from the worst prison riot in America’s history,” Maestas said. “So the question is: What has changed since 1980 other than just bigger checks from the Legislature to the Department of Corrections?”