Prison cells go empty in New Mexico

While Colorado’s inmate population continues to rise, neighboring state New Mexico is experiencing a drop in prison population due in part to eased penalties against nonviolent offenders, according to a new study.

New Mexico’s inmate population has dropped 6.6 percent in the past two years, a state commission found, in stark contrast to national trends where populations continue to surge.

From our sister site, The New Mexico Independent:

The number of empty cells continues to grow in New Mexico prisons, a trend that has befuddled officials for more than a year. But now we may have the first systematic study on why, thanks to a New Mexico Sentencing Commission report.

Now prison officials are canceling contracts meant to help house state prisoners, and more cancellations may be on the way because there’s space where none was a few years ago.

The commission attributes the drop in population to various factors, including the reduction of prison time for nonviolent offenders, the use of “drug courts” to treat drug offenders and a new policy easing what parole violations merit incarceration.

A recent report (PDF) by the national Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that Colorado has a population of more than 22,000 state and federal inmates, nearly a 5 percent increase since 2000.

Another bureau study also reported this year that the total number of prisoners in the U.S. is continuing to increase, with a population of more than 7 million.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at