March 5, 2021

Bill to end new contracts on private prisons passes House committee

A bill to impose a moratorium on new contracts for private prison facilities passed the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee 3 to 2.

Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, and a co-sponsor of HB 352, described it as “a newer version” of HB 40, which stalled at the House Appropriations and Finance Committee earlier this session. HB 352 would create a task force made up of 17 stakeholders, including the state Department of Corrections and other agency representatives, to analyze phasing out private prisons.

HB 40 would have ended private prisons within 3 to 5 years in New Mexico. HB 352 is a more “narrow” approach, advocates said. Rubio said HB 352 is much more “aligned” with the concerns she heard during the debate in the House Judiciary Committee around HB 40.

Related: Bill to end private detention facilities in the state passes House Judiciary but may face uphill battle

Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, called it a “big compromise.”

“But a way forward on this issue so many in New Mexico care about,” Romero said.

Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, who is the lead sponsor on HB 352, said the private prison population has “skyrocketed” since 2000, even as incarceration rates have declined.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the numbers of those in local county jails has increased due to more people being arrested for minor crimes and the inability of people to make bail.

Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, who voted, along with Rep. Randall Pedigrew, R-Hobbs, against the bill, said she was concerned about the town of Estancia.

“Estancia is deeply worried because this is all they have,” Lord said. 

Serrato said the task force would look at the economic impacts of closing private prison facilities on local economies. The task force would have until late December 2021 to produce a report.

Representatives from New Mexico Association of Counties and Otero County, which is home to the privately managed Otero County Processing Center and the Otero County Prison Facility, said those entities both oppose the bill.

But Serrato said New Mexico is at 76 percent of prison capacity.

“There’s not going to be this sudden burst of the levies,” Serrato said.