THE COST OF INCARCERATION: Taxpayers are paying a heavy price for crime

In Curry County to house one inmate at the detention center burns $50 in taxpayer money per day. To educate and care for one child in area schools, costs $29 per day. (CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Every day in Roosevelt and Curry County, taxpayers pay more to house criminals than to educate children.

In Curry County, inmates absorb almost double the amount of money students do. To house an inmate at the detention center burns $50 in taxpayer money per day. To educate and care for a child in area schools, costs $29 per day. In neighboring Roosevelt County, the gap is less severe. About $35 is spent per child per day, and about $45 dollars is spent per inmate per day.

But officials concur, if more money were invested in education, less money would likely need to be spent on incarceration.

“It’s got to start somewhere,” Roosevelt County Manager Charlene Hardin said.

County jails are bursting at the seams, while millions of dollars are pumped into a system that hosts the same inmates over and over again.

“It is going to break counties in the state if something doesn’t change quickly,” Hardin said from her office. “Maybe if we started young (with education), we could change things. It’s worth trying.”

In an office less than 20 miles away, Curry County Manager Dick Smith is also disenchanted with the corrections system. Every year, more than half of his general budget funding is swallowed up at the county jail, and his facility, he said, is one of the most frugal in the state.

“I could get on a soapbox (with this issue) forever,” Smith said.

He is convinced if societal problems were confronted head on — with adequate investments in education and social services — tons of money could be saved in the long run. And quality of life in the county could finally flourish. With the current budget so closely tethered to needs at the detention center, funding for road repairs, fairground improvements, and other services are reduced to crumbs.

“Our detention center is the place of last resort for mental health issues, for drug issues, and family problems … There is a lack of mental health care, drug rehabilitation, and counseling (services in the county),” Smith said. “I am a firm believer that we spend the money for all those services, but we do it on the back end, in hospitals and detention centers.”

David Briseno is a more obvious cheerleader for the power of education.

As the director of federal programs at Clovis Municipal Schools, he tracks the amount of federal money used in area schools and lobbies for more.

“The message we would like to send out,” Briseno said, “is let’s invest more on the front end. If people are more educated, they may be less likely to get involved in a life of crime.”

His observations hit the bull’s eye, at least according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, which show 68 percent of state prison inmates never received a high school diploma.

“A lot of literature suggests that if a person doesn’t acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be competitive in the workplace, they will participate in other means of survival,” Eastern New Mexico University Professor of Criminal Justice Melissa Blevins said.

But Blevins isn’t sure that pumping more money into the education system is the answer. “Crime is a multi-faceted problem,” she said, which correlates to poverty and is often generational.

And perhaps education and corrections are so polarized, they shouldn’t be compared. Inmates need medical and psychological care, around the clock security, legal counsel, and a litany of other service that students do not. And where the needs of the two groups overlap, sources of service differ, said one man embedded in the corrections system.

Jails are often forced to look outside their facilities for services schools provide in house, said Roosevelt County Detention Center Lt. Stewart Wesson, who cited numerous reasons for high corrections costs and comparably low education costs.

“I am a taxpayer myself. And I don’t like (the amount of money spent on corrections). But it has to come from somewhere,” Wesson said.

He described a jail pressured to cut corners to save costs. Instead of sending ill or injured inmates to hospital and doctors, the in-house nurse practitioner often attends to them, he said. With budgets already so pinched, money for educational programs inside jails is next to impossible, he said.

The Curry County Adult Detention Center does not provide inmates access to educational programs, said its assistant administrator Larry Sanders. Yet Sanders said such programs would likely alleviate the rearrest, reconviction, and reincarceration of former inmates, known as recidivism.
At a detention center in Eddy County, near Carlsbad, it seems education is indeed the answer.

The facility has woven education into almost every aspect of incarceration, and recidivism has reduced significantly, according to jail officials.

Inmates there are enrolled in the Lifeline Intervention Program, which provides basic GED and life skills instruction in three phases. But because the program was implemented just 14 months ago, it is hard to gauge its success statistically, according to Eddy County Detention Center Warden and program advocate Steve Farmer.
But it can be measured in other ways.

“The program is extremely successful,” Farmer said. “I can tell you about one inmate. For five years, he was in and out of the detention center. He graduated from Lifeline in April of 2005, and he hasn’t been back since. He is in the community, he has a job, and he is paying taxes.”

The story of the unnamed inmate — not dissimilar from turnarounds among other program graduates, Farmer said — may be central to any debate concerning corrections and education.

As ENMU Professor of Sociology Rosemary Bahr, phrases it, “as a society we are more interested in punishing a criminal than we are in preventing someone from becoming a criminal.”