SLEVIN LAWSUIT SETTLED FOR $15.5 MILLION

SLEVIN LAWSUIT SETTLED FOR $15.5 MILLION

The Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners has agreed to a $15.5 million settlement of the lawsuit filed on behalf of Stephen Slevin.

In his suit, Mr. Slevin successfully alleged that as a detainee at the Doña Ana County Detention Center, between August 2005 and June 2007, he was not provided adequate medical and mental healthcare. The Board of County Commissioners deeply regrets the harm Mr. Slevin suffered during this period. Over the past seven years, Doña Ana County has made significant improvements to detention center staffing, training, facilities and procedures. Doña Ana County is committed to ensuring consistent and appropriate treatment of every detainee in its care.
Although substantial, the settlement will not affect the long-term integrity or financial stability of Doña Ana County. The New Mexico Association of Counties will pay $6 million of the settlement. The county will pay the remainder out of cash reserves. The balance left in cash reserves will be sufficient to satisfy state mandates. However, loss of interest revenues based on past cash reserves will require careful financial management.
Doña Ana County is committed to providing essential public services. The entire management team will be involved in re-evaluation of current and future budgets based on available financial resources and the county’s new strategic plan.
The Doña Ana County Detention Center has 846 beds, but it is much more than merely a jail. The staff is tasked with providing quality care across a wide range of medical conditions, including mental-health issues, PTSD, acute care and dental services. The Detention Center budget in 2006 was $12.7 million. In the current fiscal year, it is $23.5 million, with most of that investment channeled toward improved staffing, training and inmate access to care and services, including entire cell clusters set aside specifically for personalized care of the mentally ill. The facility is on track to be nationally accredited by both the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the American Jail Association. The accreditation process takes into account ongoing training across a spectrum of areas, including the proper ways to manage the mentally ill in a detention environment.
The Doña Ana County Detention Center is one component in a complex, larger criminal-justice system that includes law enforcement, the courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, social workers and the state’s mental-health programs and facilities. The detention center operates under the regular oversight of outside agencies and entities dedicated to humane care and conditions. Doña Ana County has reached out to the other major players to create and sustain a task force whose members are collectively committed to reducing jail stays prior to trial and to expediting other processes throughout the larger system.
Doña Ana County is building a regionally first-of-its-kind Crisis Triage Center that will help stabilize mentally-ill persons who have committed no crimes but who represent a danger to themselves or others in the eyes of law-enforcement professionals. The 12-bed center is scheduled to open for business on July 1, 2013.
In agreeing to the settlement, the Board of County Commissioners took into consideration the risks of the appeals outcomes, as well as the total potential costs had the $22 million jury verdict stood. Including interest, attorneys’ fees and costs, the total could have reached in excess of $24 million. The county was not in a financial position to bear that kind of burden without the certainty of adverse implications to staffing and key program provisions.
As part of the settlement, Detention Center Director Chris Barela and former Medical Director Dan Zemek are released from personal liability in the verdict. Barela has been the driving force for ongoing improvements to staffing and services within the facility since becoming director in December of 2005. Zemek was recognized in 2007 by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill for his contributions to addressing mental-health issues within the facility during his tenure.
Doña Ana County is committed to the well-being of all its residents. Bold steps have been taken to establish Doña Ana County as the model for detention centers and the care of the mentally ill in the State of New Mexico. Doña Ana County does, in fact, lead the state in this regard. While we believe the Slevin award was excessive, we respect our judicial system and the role of juries to award damages. In the wake of this large settlement, we can say definitively that we have learned from the past. We can also say with confidence that we are leading the way for the future.

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Reporters seeking more information or interviews: may call county Public Information Director Jess Williams at (575) 525-5801.