The following piece by Patrick Brenner of the Rio Grande Foundation appeared in the Los Alamos Reporter on September 11, 2020:
As the country begins to re-open and we assess what the future will look like post-pandemic, states will have to take a hard look at where to allocate funds knowing there will undoubtedly be budget concerns for the foreseeable future. While budget cuts are imminent, and in New Mexico they are needed, that does not mean indiscriminately eliminating programs or services that provide real benefit to New Mexico residents who need them most, especially when they ultimately save taxpayers money in the long run.
Before everything shut down, I toured the New Mexico Men’s and Women’s Recovery Academies near Albuquerque where I met with both the residents and the staff who run both of these facilities. Not only did the residents and staff provide glowing reviews of the programming and facilities, but also the Department of Corrections official who toured with us said that she fights for this type of programming across New Mexico and spoke about how effective it has been. These types of programs are on the chopping block. But it is these same programs that serve as alternatives to incarceration and are incredibly effective in treatment, saving taxpayer money, and better outcomes for participants of these programs.
The New Mexico Men’s and Women’s Recovery Academies are both managed by the GEO Group, a private contractor that manages detention and corrections facilities. While often vilified in the media, this private contractor has spent $10 million last year alone on programming around substance abuse counseling and cognitive behavioral treatment. Rehabilitation programming like this provides care, compassion, and effective tools to help people and reduce recidivism rates.
When you visit, the most surprising element is the sense of community and pride that has been fostered among the residents and staff where the more tenured members act as mentors for the newer residents and they truly pull for one another through this tough transition. The graduates of this program see this as a new opportunity for their lives and they are less likely to fall back into their old ways. Funding these types of programs will not only help residents overcome their addiction and other issues, but they will also help New Mexico’s bottom line.
This programming in New Mexico is new. But inmates who participated in this same programming in facilities in Florida had a recidivism rate 30 percent lower than their peers that did not have the same programing. Assuming this trend holds and recidivism is reduced by one third of the average in Florida after participation in these programs, this could be a major cost saving measure for the state. In 2019 alone, this would roughly provide $8 million in cost avoidance for Florida because they will no longer have to house these reformed inmates. There is every reason to believe the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs will see the same drop as Florida experienced and New Mexico could have the same experience with “cost avoidance”.
Corrections funding was already reduced during the recently-completed special session. When cutbacks occur in the 2021 session, programs like these should be among those preserved. The expertise of private sector providers can provide such services at a high quality and reasonable price, but the ultimate benefit is to the State and taxpayers of New Mexico who are desperately searching for ways to reduce crime and recidivism in their communities.
There is no “silver bullet” to solving crime. The COVID 19 epidemic will have unpredictable consequences for our society as well as crime rates and the criminal justice system at large for years to come. Even in times of tight budgets, New Mexico needs to continue investing programming, especially the kind that can be provided by private providers at a reasonable cost in our prisons and treatment facilities to ensure that we support inmates and residents. Short-sighted decisions now may have a negative impact on New Mexico for years to come.
Patrick Brenner is a policy analyst with the Rio Grande Foundation, New Mexico’s free market think tank. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.