ZIMMERMAN — A group of about 60 people gathered in the Willard Room in Zimmerman Library on March 2 for a panel discussion titled: "Who is Caught up in New Mexico's Criminal Justice System? Considering Race, Ethnicity, Class, Gender."
Jeff Proctor, an investigative reporter for New Mexico In Depth, hosted the panel on the prison system in New Mexico and the flaws within it.
New Mexico Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, University of New Mexico law professor Sonia M. Gipson Rankin, director and co-founder of the Institute for the Study of "Race" & Social Justice Nancy López and deputy director of the New Mexico Sentencing Commission Douglas Carter sat on the panel.
The initial talking point of the panel was a recently sponsored memorial by Sedillo Lopez which aimed to start the necessary corrections the state must do in order to better combat the issues in its prison system. The memorial didn't make it to the Senate floor.
Sedillo Lopez, who opened up the discussion, said the aim of the memorial was to be the first step toward proper legislation, mainly for New Mexico to start collecting more accurate data about the race and ethnicity of incarcerated individuals.
She also mentioned that during her investigative work on this issue, she found the state has no mechanism for self-reporting race and relies on the state and city police officers to determine the race of a given individual.
The only time that inmates are asked about their race is during the decennial U.S. census. The census counts all the individuals currently residing in the United States and is responsible for allocating money to the state and determining the number of the state's representatives in the U.S. House. The next census will take place later this year.
Sedillo Lopez is also a member of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Interim Committee in the state legislature, where she was able to tour the prisons around the state. She said she found it "was obvious, when you walk in there, that it doesn't represent who actually lives in New Mexico" because of the overrepresentation of African-Americans and Hispanics.
Carter echoed the sentiments expressed by Sedillo Lopez and stated that although the memorial didn't make it to the floor, they would adopt it anyway.
He also said that while the Sentencing Commission is "a state commission that focuses on criminal justice reform and policy," the main group that will handle these potential reforms is the Reform Committee, a subset of the commission.
Currently, the state doesn't collect the data of the prison population due to the data "not being great," according to Carter. This is mainly due to the aforementioned issues.
Carter also mentioned that after a more proper data collection system is put in place, they must continue to audit the process to make sure the data is collected in the correct way.
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López and Rankin got the ball rolling on what happens when this level of ambiguity exists within the prison system, with López stating that the census questionnaire leaves too many issues with the handling of the data. López said that an example of this is certain census questions included in the wrong category.
Rankin said one of the issues for her was self-identification and the process that is meant to jumble people's opinion as to what their race is. She added that the data collection needs to be transparent.
"When the data is corrupted, everything that flows from it is useless," she said.
A good chunk of the second half of discussion was directed toward the controversial data collection program known as Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions, which is used in a majority of states to collect data on the prison population across the nation.
The program has come under fire in recent years for being biased toward African-American inmates.
While there was an allotment of time directed toward the audience asking the panel members questions about the issues addressed in the program, many in the audience that were called upon gave their opinions and concurred with many of the issues.
Director of Access Services and Undergraduate Engagement Cindy Pierard and Subject Librarian Elizabeth Cooper, who helped with coordinating the event, were both ecstatic about how the event turned out. Pierard said she was "really pleased with the number of people who came out."
Spencer Butler is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SpencerButler48