Housing shortage kept cash-poor parolees behind bars

By Ike Swetlitz, Searchlight New Mexico

David, 28, was counting the days until January 6, 2012, when his prison sentence would end and he would be released on parole. He had earned his GED diploma inside and lined up some job options in construction and landscaping around Albuquerque. But the date came and went, and still the state kept him locked up. 

The problem was housing. There was only one halfway house in the state that would take an inmate like David — a convicted sex offender — and it had a long waiting list. If he wanted to get a bed there anytime soon, David would have to buy his freedom — in cash. 

He was lucky – he and his sister were able to come up with the money. A $600 rent payment jumped him to the front of the line.

“I felt that I was being treated unfair,” he said. “I’d already fulfilled my obligation of my sentence. Why were they giving me such a hard time?” 

David isn’t the only inmate in New Mexico forced to choose between staying behind bars or paying to parole more quickly. Two other men told Searchlight New Mexico that between 2017 and 2018, they paid $1,200 to get into La Pasada, a halfway house in Albuquerque. Several inmates at the Otero County Prison Facility, which houses many sex offenders, said they, too, were aware of the pay-to-play system. 

“It’s outrageous,” said Matthew Coyte, an Albuquerque civil rights lawyer. “Making money the determination of whether you get released goes contrary to all the principles behind a just criminal justice system.”

Officials with the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) and La Pasada acknowledged that the arrangement existed.

“Some people can afford to get out — pay to get out,” said Daryl Agnes, La Pasada’s director. “Some people cannot. Which one is fair?” When asked to answer his own question, Agnes said: “There’s no good answer.”


Limited options

When it comes to releasing sex offenders on parole, New Mexico has few good answers. 

The sex offender label is broad and lumps together people who have been convicted of wildly different actions. Under New Mexico law, the term can describe a 19-year-old who had consensual sex with a 15-year-old as well as a person who violently raped a young child. David was sentenced to four years after being convicted of second-degree criminal sexual penetration of a 15-year-old when he was 23 (at the time, he said, he was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine). Searchlight is referring to him only by his first name because of societal stigma.

All sex offenders sent to New Mexico state prisons are required to be on parole, and they can’t get out of prison until the NMCD and the parole board approve their planned residence. While New Mexico’s laws, unlike those of many other states, do not actually restrict where sex offenders can live, state policy does. 

Sex offenders on probation or parole are required to sign a contract saying they will only reside in places the state has inspected “for appropriateness” — a vague term that gives the government almost complete power over their residence. NMCD regulations further forbid them from living within 1,000 feet of “an area where children may frequent” — meaning a school, day care, or community center, among other places. 

Read the rest of the story at Searchlight New Mexico