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That New Mexico faces economic challenges is beyond dispute. With general fund spending having risen to $6 billion just a few years ago, the Legislature now faces the prospect of reducing the budget to $5 billion, if not less.

In such a difficult environment, there is no single easy way to cut enough spending from the budget to make ends meet.

One area that many states have overlooked is criminal justice. Gov. Richardson has previously acknowledged the importance of reforms in this area by convening a prison reform task force, the recommendations of which were released in 2008. The good news is that legislators can combine the concepts of criminal-justice reform and cost savings in ways that will positively affect New Mexico citizens.

While they won’t close the deficit by themselves, the ideas laid out below stand on their own merits. Cost savings, while potentially substantial, are just another positive result of improving New Mexico’s criminal- justice system.

For starters, according to the New Mexico Department of Corrections, there are 853 drug- possession offenders in prison in New Mexico. Many of these offenders could be diverted to probation through increased use of drug courts and mandatory treatment and work programs.

If we assume that half of these drug-possession offenders should not be eligible for diversion from prison because they had large quantities of drugs that are associated with dealing or have too many prior offenses, New Mexico could still save $13.2 million based on the state’s $31,000 annual per-prisoner cost of incarceration.

Another source of potentially significant savings lies in diverting from prison probationers and parolees who are revoked for technical violations of their supervision, not new offenses. In 2008, there were 413 such revocations to prison.

Instead, New Mexico could use a graduated sanctions matrix that relies more on intermediate sanctions such as curfews, electronic monitoring, supervised work crews, and short periods of incarceration in county jails. If this diverted just half of this pool of offenders, it would save $6.4 million.

New Mexico can also join 36 other states by implementing a policy to release geriatric inmates who are no longer a danger to the public. Such inmates are even more expensive to incarcerate due to health-care costs.

Based on Oklahoma’s experience, 17 infirm New Mexico inmates could be released every year on geriatric parole with savings of $844,594, which assumes a higher $50,000 incarceration cost per year that is supported by research on geriatric inmate medical costs. Geriatric inmates have a recidivism rate of less than 5 percent and not a single participant in Oklahoma’s model program has committed a new offense.

Finally, more halfway houses would provide an alternative for the 130 inmates who have been paroled but await release because they lack housing. A halfway house costs only $25 a day, while prison is $85 a day. Assuming 120 days of time at a halfway house instead of prison, this policy would save $936,000.

Some other reforms would provide long-term benefits by making it more likely that ex-offenders will become productive members of society rather than career criminals going through prison’s revolving door.

Currently, 41 percent of New Mexico probationers and parolees are employed. Employed ex-offenders are three times less likely to re-offend. One barrier to employment is that New Mexico employers have been held liable for negligent hiring of employees with questionable backgrounds.

The Urban Institute noted, “The high probability of losing coupled with the magnitude of settlement awards suggest that fear of litigation may substantially deter employers from hiring applicants with criminal history records.”

That fear is not without basis. Employers lose 72 percent of negligent hiring cases with an average settlement of more than $1.6 million. New Mexico can address this by immunizing employers from such suits — suits should be permitted for failure to supervise but not merely for hiring an ex-offender.

There are many opportunities for New Mexico leaders to help close the budget gap through sensible criminal-justice reforms that are also consistent with the goal of public safety.

Paul Gessing is president of the Rio Grande Foundation. Marc A. Levin is the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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