County jail undergoes evaluation

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What do you do with a problem like the county jail? That's the question that has plagued Valencia County commissioners for years, and they are possibly one step closer to a solution.

What do you do with a problem like the county jail? That's the question that has plagued Valencia County commissioners for years, and they are possibly one step closer to a solution.

Earlier this summer, a consultant for the National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, visited the county jail for a week, interviewing staff, the warden, local law enforcement officers, judges and attorneys.

The jail's warden, Joe Chavez, said the visit by NIC consultant Billy Wasson was similar to an audit.

"It's an outside party reviewing our operation. It's nice to have that to see if there are things we are missing, things we should see," Chavez said.

In addition to the NIC assessment, the New Mexico County Insurance Authority, administered by the New Mexico Association of Counties, also conducted an operational assessment of the detention center earlier this spring. Both reports were conducted at no charge to the county.

"Both reports showed good operations of the jail, considering what we have, and the findings were issues we were aware of," Chavez said. "There were no surprises."

The big issue raised in both reports was the high inmate population at the jail.

Billy Wasson, the consultant sent by NIC, isn't a stranger to Valencia County. Wasson performed an evaluation of the county's jail in 1997. That assessment led to an addition to the jail, the "new jail," which opened in 2000.

To create the report, Wasson gathered community demographic data as well as crime data and inmate population statistics.

Midway through his week-long visit, Wasson briefed county commissioners on what he would be doing in the evaluation.

"The first thing you need to understand is you pay the bills but you don't control who comes in and out as a commission. The warden doesn't either," Wasson said.

"That is shared by a lot of people — those who arrest people, who defend people. Judges make decisions at the magistrate and district court level."

Wasson's report, which was issued in early June and contained year-to-date statistics for 2014 as well as numbers going back to 2009, noted that the primary issue in the jail's growing population is the length of inmate stays.

In 2009, the average length of stay was 13.89 days. That average increased slowly year to year from 2010 to 2013, but in the first five months of 2014 increased sharply to an average of 50.33 days.

The jail's average daily population, both men and women, was at 175 people in 2009 and has risen to 245 in 2014.

The report goes on to say if the county could take inmates held for more than 200 days and housed outside the county, the average daily population would drop by 67 inmates, probably enough to avert the need for out-of-county housing in the first place.

Wasson's report also noted, "It is clear there is little communication between the components of the justice system here in Valencia County."

He went on to write that the parties — the warden, judges, district attorney's office and defense attorneys — seem open to suggestions on how to improve communication.

He suggested the formation of a system-wide criminal justice coordination council that included representatives from all those groups, giving the county a forum in which to change the perception that overcrowding was just a "jail problem."

"The data and ensuing dialogue will allow the county to portray potential or actual jail crowding as a justice system dysfunction," Wasson wrote. "That change in perception makes it 'our problem' instead of 'the jail's problem.'"

While Chavez said there was good information presented in both assessments, neither is a magic bullet for the jail's issues.

At this point, whether to repair the existing building or move forward with the much-delayed expansion is really an either-or situation, the warden said. There is about $1.2 million set aside from a previous corrections gross receipts tax that can be used for the jail.

"Do we continue with the plan to expand or do we make the repairs?" Chavez asked.

The jail has a leaky roof, drainage problems and one of the outer walls is cracking.

"If we expand and attach the pods to the existing building and something goes wrong, we run into the possibility that warranties won't be honored and there will be a lot of finger pointing," he said. "Do we sell the pods? Build a new jail? We need to present scenarios and information to the commissioners, and have them give us direction."

Chavez said a complete assessment of needed repairs should be finished some time next month.

"There are a lot of questions," he said. "We want these evaluations to be actively used to plan the future of the county's jail.

"We have to use these to implement change; we can't just put them on a shelf."


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