Valencia County commissioners want answers on overcrowded jail

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The county has taken a step forward in addressing the overcrowding at the Valencia County Detention Center.

But there is a small delay in awarding a contract due to a protest filed by a local contractor.

Last month, six construction companies submitted bids to complete the much delayed jail expansion.

The expansion of the facility has been a subject of discussion amongst the commissioners for several years now due to overcrowding in the men's facility and the age and condition of the women's section.

An invitation to bid on the expansion project was put out on the streets on Feb. 11, and on Feb. 27 the bids were opened and tabulated by county staff.

B-Z Enterprises, an Albuquerque company, was the low bidder with a price of $859,400.

The following day, Belen-based contractor C.C. Construction filed a protest.

A letter signed by Chris Chavez, owner of C.C., says B-Z failed to list a security contractor for the security doors and windows, as called for in the plans and specifications of the invitation to bid.

C.C. Construction's bid was $939,000, the second lowest bid of the six.

The county's purchasing agent, Mike Vinyard, responded to the protest in a letter dated March 1, advising Chavez that he would be contacted "after we have considered the merits of your protest and made a determination."

With the expansion hopefully on the right track, the commissioners are still looking for other methods to alleviate the overcrowding.

Last month, at a commission meeting prior to the bid submittals, commissioners expressed their concerns and dissatisfaction over the overcrowding, a situation that often leads to inmates being housed in adjacent counties at an increased daily cost to the county.

Commissioner Alicia Aguilar said not only was the overcrowding at the jail an issue, but also the long-term incarceration of inmates who have not been sentenced.

"We need to get inmates through the process," Aguilar said. "We need to come together with the (district attorney), the warden, the judges and come up with some solution. This is not a solution."

County Manager Bruce Swingle agreed that the county has "a serious overcrowding problem." As of the Feb. 13 meeting, there were 40 inmates being housed in Cibola County at a cost to Valencia County of $50,000 to $70,000 a month, Swingle said.

"We can't adsorb that indefinitely. The expansion will give us 40 more beds, but it won't allow us to keep more inmates," Swingle said.

The female inmates will be moved into the new section and part of it will be used to manage inmate segregation, a necessity in the jail that is currently going unmet.

"We have to take a serious look at detention costs. There is $1.1 to $1.3 million that comes out of the general fund annually that goes into detention," Swingle said. "To have someone in that facility for over four years, we take on the liability, medical costs, mental health costs and it's going to cost us a fortune."

Numbers reported that day showed about a half dozen people in the jail with pending release dates, the county manager said, with 198 inmates sitting in jail indefinitely.

Swingle said when the subject of a community custody program was broached, he found the judges preferred the current pre-prosecution diversion program.

In an email interview following the meeting, Swingle said the primary difference between a pre-prosecution program and community custody is the county's intent for them.

Pre-prosecution is generally used to avoid a criminal prosecution, he said, and if an offender completes the court's order in good faith, the charge is dismissed or reduced, or the sentence is reduced or eliminated.

"Our intent is to place those offenders arrested for non-serious offenses on a community custody program and release them. They would be supervised by either an electronic monitoring program or through supervised visits to their house and work," Swingle said via email. "Why keep minor offense offenders in jail if they are not a threat to the community until they are actually convicted? Once convicted, they are held for the appropriate duration of the sentence."

Swingle said during discussions with jail warden Joe Chavez, they estimated 30 to 45 percent of current inmates would qualify for community custody.

"They are not serious charges. To have a shoplifter in jail for six months is uncalled for. If a judge sentences them, then that needs to occurs. But having people in jail for 30, 60, 90, 400 days is unreasonable for the taxpayers of this community," he said.

The county currently pays $50,000 a year to the 13th Judicial District Court to fund its pre-prosecution diversion program. The program consists of an individual who evaluates inmates and in cooperation with a judge, determines whether the person can be trusted to be let out of jail while they await trial and sentencing.

"This person determines whether the inmates can be out and about in the community or at home," Swingle said in the meeting. "They set the protocols of what the inmate can and cannot do."

That person carries a case load of between 40 and 60 inmates at any one time, keeping those individuals out of the jail if they comply with the program's rules.

Swingle said the courts have requested an additional $70,000 from the county to expand the pre-prosecution program, adding another caseworker and an administrative assistant.

Commissioner Mary Andersen proposed holding a public meeting with the local judges to "talk frankly and openly" about the situation.

Saying the matter needed to include the public and go beyond a dialogue between commissioners, Aguilar said it might be better to start with the district attorney, then move on to the judges.

"We are paying money for this program," she said. "We deserve a report. They need to tell us the strengths and where we can shore it up."

Andersen said the subject would be better addressed if the commissioners met with everyone at the same time.

"What we hear from the DA may be only his problems," she said. "I think we are stronger if we talk about this as a group. We need to come together, talk about our problems and find a solution."

Commission Chairman Charles Eaton asked Swingle to send correspondence to the DA and judges to coordinate a meeting with the commissioners.

"I think we've all recognized this is critical," Eaton said. "Request the DA come and give us a summary for his reasoning on why people are (in the jail) for so long. Ask the courts have a representative on their position as well."

Commissioner Lawrence Romero, a former Valencia County sheriff, said the county can't keep inmates "on layaway as long as we want. That's illegal. No jail was built or equipped to house them this long."


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.