New Mexico county wants trial on old jail lawsuit

January 9, 2014 • State News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — As a civil rights lawsuit over conditions in the Bernalillo County jail turns 19 years old, county attorneys are trying a new approach to resolve the case: a trial on the merits.

County lawyers are asking a federal judge to hold a trial on whether crowding and other jail conditions violate inmates’ constitutional rights, the Albuquerque Journal ( reported.

The county says years of litigation and agreements along the way have failed to resolve the case.

“The two sides are still far apart on [auth] some key issues,” county Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said. “Our legal counsel doesn’t see that we can settle this in a way that would end the lawsuit and be fair to the county. We feel we are running a constitutional jail and that should be the standard the court uses.”

Attorneys for the inmates haven’t yet filed a response to the county’s motions, which also include asking Senior U.S. District Judge James A. Parker to have experts evaluate whether conditions inside the jail violate inmates’ constitutional rights.

The lawsuit was filed on Jan. 10, 1995, when the old downtown jail sometimes housed more than 900 inmates, well above its 586-person capacity.

Overcrowding continued even after the filing of the lawsuit and the construction of a massive new jail.

The Metropolitan Detention Center opened in 2003. It was designed for 2,236 inmates, but the population has climbed above 2,900 at times over the years. Last summer, the population hovered about 200 to 300 inmates above design capacity.

Parker last year ordered the county to develop a plan to address overcrowding and warned that the county might face substantial daily fines.

The county in 2013 reduced the jail population by shipping hundreds of inmates to jails in other counties and in Texas and by releasing more inmates through a program that is similar to house arrest.

The county is pushing to resolve the litigation, in part, because it’s so expensive.

The county spends about $1 million a year on attorney fees and for experts who are monitoring jail conditions.

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