By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico has a real problem getting inmates out of prison and into parole programs.
An increasing number of inmates don’t get released at all and serve what’s called “in-house parole.” That means they stay locked up for weeks and sometimes months at a time.
And that costs the state’s taxpayers an estimated $10.3 million a year.
“When I first heard of in-house parole, I thought, what the hell is that?” New Mexico Corrections Department Secretary Gregg Marcantel told New Mexico Watchdog. “It’s a term that doesn’t make any sense.”
A recent study by the Legislative Finance Committee estimates that 290 inmates are serving in-house parole in state facilties. Given that the tab is $99.31 a day to house one in-house parolee, the costs add up.
“That’s a lot of money for taxpayers,” Maestas said.
In-house parole occurs for three big reasons.
First, some inmates, such as those who are convicted of sexual and/or violent crimes, are often hard to place into halfway houses.
Second, strange as it sounds, some inmates prefer prison to parole.
“Some people have been unsuccessful with parole in the past and some literally hate being supervised on the streets so much that they’d rather do, say, three months in prison than a year of parole,” said Maestas, who spent 10 years as a criminal defense attorney.
But statistically, the biggest reason for in-house parole in New Mexico is because the paperwork isn’t getting done.
A plurality of the inmates serving in-house parole are sitting in prison because they’re waiting for their parole certification completed by prison facilities:
“You would think that someone’s liberty would demand more than what, essentially, is bureaucratic indifference,” Maestas said.
“I don’t know about the veracity of that particular number,” Marcantel said. “But obviously, if they’re sitting in prison to the tune of $100 per day instead of out there working and paying taxes, that’s a real cost we can measure.”
In the first three months of 2012, the New Mexico Parole Board had to remove more than 70 parole cases from the hearing docket because of “pending administrative issues and erroneous paperwork” from the New Mexico Corrections Department. That included missing plan packets, pending parole plans and wrong case numbers.
One day in March 2007, 74 percent of the 38 inmates scheduled for hearings at the Lea County Correctional Facility had to be scratched primarily because of missing documentation. For one inmate, it marked the fourth time his case got bounced, according to an LFC report.
Marcantel, who has been secretary of the corrections department since November 2011, said he sees all three factors behind in-house parole as “a big picture problem” that needs to be fixed.
To tackle the paperwork issue, the department is making changes. In the past, a parole plan was compiled 90 days before an inmate was up for parole. But a new program instituted in the past 18 months, called “Cradle to Grave,” directs caseworkers to gather parole documentation from the moment an inmate is processed into a facility.
“If you’re scurrying around in the last 90 days … it’s not going to be an effective thing and you’re going to have a lot errors,” Marcantel said.
In addition, Marcantel said the corrections department is assessing fines to private prison contractors who don’t parole their inmates in a timely manner with plans to help ensure public safety.
“Arguably, the community thinks (private prisons) sometimes are more incentivized not to get those parole plans together because they have more bed-pays in their contract,” Marcantel said. “Well, we’re penalizing them on a per-day basis.”
“Maybe we should hire more case managers,” Maestas said. “Some might say, ‘hiring case managers costs money,’ but hiring one case manager per facility at $40,000 or $50,000 is a hell of a lot cheaper than $10 million.”
As for hard-to-place inmates, the NMCD has instituted a parole program in Otero County Prison Facility for sex offenders and is refurbishing a facility in Los Lunas to serve as a halfway house for female inmates.
“It has 18 beds,” Marcantel said. “We’ve got a small facility … but think of it this way: I get 18 more women out, that’s to the tune of (saving) a hundred dollars a day (in expenses to house a prison inmate) and they are now producing and paying for their halfway house fees. They’re now contributing and succeeding.”
To deal with inmates who would rather serve their parole in prison, Marcantel said NMCD is now tying the benefits of good behavior — what’s called “good time” — to accepting parole guidelines.
“Now I’m telling them, ‘Here’s the deal: Your good time is dependent upon you positively participating in finding a way for you to succeed when you get out of prison,’ ” Marcantel said.
The problems with in-house parole are “costing taxpayers a lot and it’s actually contrary to public safety,” Maestas said. “You don’t want someone to go from, say, 23 hours of lockdown to freedom. Parole should be about transitioning into the community and toward a program of rehabilitation.”
“You’re either in prison or you’re on parole,” Marcantel said. “I don’t want to hear that word (in-house parole) anymore because it’s stupid and it makes no sense. These are inmates that are release-eligible and we have a responsibility to do everything we can to get them released.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski