- Associated Press - Thursday, September 14, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico’s prisons are nearing capacity, putting more pressure on state lawmakers to find solutions as they consider a host of criminal justice reforms ahead of the next legislative session.

The New Mexico Sentencing Commission presented its latest prison population forecast to the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee during a meeting Wednesday in Santa Fe.

The forecast suggests the need for beds will only grow as parole violations land more people back behind bars and as the percentage of serious violent offenders climbs, meaning those inmates have to serve more time before becoming eligible for release.

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“That growth is going to continue to put pressure on the population,” Linda Freeman, executive director of the sentencing commission said.

The report indicates that the number of women in prison is expected to surpass capacity within a year and space will run out for male inmates in about two years.

Freeman said there are several factors that can affect the prison population and noted that the state lacks enough halfway houses and other transitional programs that could help ease the pressure.

When compared to other state prison systems, New Mexico houses a higher percentage of inmates convicted of violent offences, according to the report. As of June 2016, nearly two-thirds of the state’s male inmates had been convicted of a violent crime.

Data from the sentencing commission also shows that the number of serious violent offenders, particularly among the male population, has been increasing over the long term. In fact, the number of annual admissions for such inmates has nearly doubled over the last decade.

The number of women confined in New Mexico for violent crimes is only slightly higher than the national percentage, but state officials acknowledged the most notable trend in New Mexico over the last five years has been an increase in the female inmate population.

By 2027, the sentencing commission is predicting there will be more than 1,000 women in New Mexico prisons, marking an increase of nearly one third over the current population. The projected increase in the male population is closer to 13 percent.

Republican Sen. Sander Rue of Albuquerque said New Mexico is not alone in its struggle to control the prison population and acknowledged that the work facing the Legislature will be difficult.

“The question for me is who really belongs in prison and who doesn’t,” Rue said. “We have nonviolent offenders, some folks that are just repeat offenders for relatively minor nonviolent crimes. Those are things we have to look at - whether we’re going to make room for the folks that really need to be behind bars and incarcerated and if there are alternatives to incarceration for some other folks.”

Rue said the prison population could further balloon as law enforcement works to bring in parole violators.

Officials said most of those repeat offenders are in the Albuquerque area, where public pressure is mounting on elected officials to address rising crime rates.

Freeman said that’s something the sentencing commission is monitoring.

According to the commission, there was a 10 percent increase in the number of male inmates in the population due to parole violations between the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years.

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