New Mexico imprisons people at a higher rate than some countries

Lawmaker says state is behind even Texas on criminal justice reform

By: - September 24, 2021 5:30 am

New Mexico’s prison population has decreased significantly in the last two years mainly because of bail reform and releasing people to slow the spread of COVID-19, but the New Mexico Sentencing Commission expects prison and jail populations to increase in the next decade. (Photo by Alex Potemkin | Getty Images)

A new report shows that New Mexico imprisons people at a higher rate than most U.S. states and every other country in the world, and there is little correlation between high incarceration rates and violent crime.

The Prison Policy Initiative found that New Mexico incarcerates 773 people per 100,000 total population, and if one imagines the state as an independent country, it would have the 19th highest per capita incarceration rate in the world.

“The incarceration rates in every U.S. state are out of line with the entire world, and we found that this disparity is not explainable by differences in crime or ‘violent crime,’ ” the researchers wrote. “In fact, there is little correlation between high rates of ‘violent crime’ and the rate at which the U.S. states lock people up in prisons and jails.”

“Compared to our allies around the world, compared to other major democracies, the United States and every U.S. state is completely unparalleled when it comes to our rates of incarceration,” said Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative.

The researchers collected prison data from every level of the criminal legal system including state prisons, local jails, people held by the U.S. Marshals Service, people detained for immigration offenses, sex offenders indefinitely detained or committed in “civil commitment centers” after completing a sentence, and those committed to psychiatric hospitals as a result of criminal charges or convictions.

Antonio “Moe” Maestas, a Democratic state lawmaker representing part of Albuquerque, said New Mexico’s high ranking does not surprise him.

“Incarcerating the most people does not equal less crime,” Maestas said. “We do not have a Bureau of Prisons prison, so our 19th ranking is a true New Mexico ranking. We don’t have two or three federal prisons that are skewing the stats.”

New Mexico imprisons people at a rate many times higher than all of the founding NATO countries, according to a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative.

He said there are many nonviolent offenders in New Mexico prisons, and that’s why some lawmakers are trying to introduce reforms to focus on people who commit violent crimes.

Many other states in the Western U.S. rank higher on the list, including Arizona, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Still, Maestas said New Mexico is behind the curve on criminal justice reform even compared with its relatively conservative neighbor, Texas, which committed in 2006 to lower its prison population and close prisons. The Prison Policy Initiative found Texas’ incarceration rate to be 840 people per capita, higher than New Mexico’s.

“We have not made that same commitment in New Mexico, we have not closed a prison nor even committed to closing a prison,” Maestas said. “We simply have not had a governor or an attorney general championing that cause even from a fiscal conservative standpoint.”

We live in a country where a small number of people have really captured the power and the wealth to make other people’s lives worse and more difficult. Mass incarceration is one way that plays out.

– Wanda Bertram, Prison Policy Initiative

Maestas said New Mexico has been slow in achieving criminal justice reform because the process is led by a citizen Legislature that only meets for a limited time each year, rather than a full-time Legislature. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 10 states have full-time legislatures.

“We’ve accomplished a great many things, but you really need a governor or an attorney general to make those big institutional changes, and, and we have not had that yet as a state,” he said.

Bertram said some people might see New Mexico’s violent crime rate being higher than other U.S. states and conclude that justifies a higher incarceration rate. However, data show that New Mexico has a similar violent crime rate to Belgium but incarcerates people at a rate nearly eight times higher than Belgium.

“And yet, if you were to fly to Belgium today, which I hear is a nice place, you would not step off the plane and encounter an out-of-control violent crime situation,” Bertram said.

New Mexico, despite having a violent crime rate similar to Belgium, incarcerates its people at a rate nearly eight times higher than Belgium, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The same holds true for the U.S. as a whole compared to other countries. Graphic courtesy of Prison Policy Initiative.

Bertram said she hopes people see the comparison between the U.S. and other founding NATO countries and intuitively think how those societies are different from home. She said there are connections between incarceration rates and the availability of affordable housing, the quality of public schools, and the quality of publicly funded single-payer health care.

“We live in a country where a small number of people have really captured the power and the wealth to make other people’s lives worse and more difficult,” Bertram said. “Mass incarceration is one way that plays out. Now, there are other countries around the world that don’t do things the same way and I think it’s no coincidence that those countries see a smaller number of their residents locked up.”

The state’s prison population has decreased significantly in the last two years mainly because of bail reform and releasing prisoners to slow the spread of COVID-19. But in the next decade, the New Mexico Sentencing Commission expects prison and jail populations to increase.

“Those reductions in the prison population are not going to hold after the pandemic is over. I’m afraid that we’re going to go back to business as usual, with very high incarceration rates,” Bertram said. “And with these tough-on-crime politicians who benefit from people being scared, continuing to push through policies that lead to incredibly high incarceration rates.”

One policy that keeps the state’s incarceration rate high is an outdated probation and parole system, Maestas said. He said the state’s Probation and Parole Division is “horrible” at distinguishing between when someone commits a true violation of their probation conditions and when they commit only a technical offense.

“That will continuously drive up the prison population, until we have probation reform,” Maestas said. 

In 2019, Maestas co-sponsored a bill which he called the most comprehensive probation reform in the country but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed it. Maestas said she did so because of political pressure from New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and district attorneys across the state. The measure will not appear in the upcoming 30-day legislative session, he said, because the governor controls the agenda for that session.

The report comes in the middle of an election season in New Mexico, with Albuquerque mayoral candidates making crime their top campaign issue.

“Our new analysis of incarceration rates and crime rates across the world reveals that the U.S.’s high incarceration rates are not a rational response to high crime rate, but rather a politically expedient response to public fears and perceptions about crime and violence,” the researchers wrote.

Bertram said she urges people, no matter who they vote for, to hold their elected officials accountable once they’re in office.

“If you elect somebody who runs on a promise of locking up violent criminals and then one year, two years later, you realize that your public benefits to you and your family have not gone up, the situation for your children in schools is not better, your health care options are not better, then I think that’s when the person that you’ve elected has used crime to scare you into voting against your own interests,” Bertram said.

Bertram praised the Albuquerque City Council’s recent decision to make public transit in the city fare-free because those kinds of universal goods will help keep more out of prison, she said. One of the main challenges for people leaving prison or jail who are trying to rebuild their lives is just getting around, she said.

“If you don’t have a driver’s license, you can’t have a car, how are you going to get around, especially if you don’t have a lot of money?” Bertram said. “Free public transit is really important for that. So I would encourage people who are in New Mexico to keep on supporting those kinds of initiatives, because that will help bring the prison population down.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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