Remove a most-public criminal case from public view, and some in power will still claim the system is wide open and working beautifully.
One is Mary Carmack-Altwies, the Santa Fe-area district attorney. She sent me a note taking issue with a recent column I wrote about her treatment of several vandals who helped destroy the Soldiers Monument on the Plaza.
“The restorative justice process is not a ‘secret system,’ ” Carmack-Altwies wrote, typing the sentence twice in four paragraphs to emphasize her disagreement with my description.
By way of review, Carmack-Altwies has hired a mediator to hold closed-door meetings between seven defendants who smashed the 152-year-old obelisk and eight people who say they were harmed by the criminals’ misconduct.
The mediator will conceal the identities of those she selects to interact with the defendants. Then the chosen eight must sign confidentiality agreements.
In the eyes of the district attorney, this furtive system inspires candor.
“When the defendants and the harmed parties meet, they will meet with one another only, along with the mediator. The purpose of this meeting or series of meetings is so that the aggrieved parties and defendants can talk freely about the harm that the defendants caused,” Carmack-Altwies stated.
Thousands of other people who say they were wronged by the vandals can only learn about the case secondhand, through the mediator’s filter.
“The last step in the process is that the mediators draft a detailed memorandum of agreement. That memorandum will be publicized and my office will ensure that the agreement is followed by the defendants,” Carmack-Altwies wrote.
She labeled destroyers of the monument as nonviolent. By using that inaccurate description, the district attorney hopes most people will accept her claim that the defendants belong at a mediation table instead of criminal court.
Some in Santa Fe hail Carmack-Altwies’ approach as a breakthrough.
One wrote to me: “The vast majority of criminal cases end by plea bargain. The affected parties learn nothing. There are no jurors to interview, and the defendant is silent on the facts. There is only retribution, punishment — and not enlightenment or healing.”
In truth, “restorative justice” is no different from plea bargains in one way: Either can be abused by those in authority.
But at least there are checks and balances for plea bargains. They are considered in open court by judges with the power to stop an unjust deal.
For instance, Carmack-Altwies’ predecessor as district attorney authorized a plea bargain in which Henrietta Trujillo would spend no time in prison, even though she admitted embezzling $249,000 from Northern New Mexico College. District Judge Jason Lidyard rejected the deal as inconsistent with punishments prosecutors sought for other thieves.
Another well-known embezzler, former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, was supposed to follow a restorative justice program but fought it with all her might.
Duran stole campaign funds and doctored state records in hopes of covering her tracks.
She could have gone to prison for 7½ years. District Judge T. Glenn Ellington decided she would serve only 30 days in county jail. Ellington said restorative justice was fitting for Duran, a tough-on-crime Republican who became a gambling addict and a thief.
Duran was to speak publicly four times a month about her crimes. These interactions with residents of the state were supposed to help restore confidence in government.
Duran argued in a court filing that making the speeches endangered her life.
She eventually withdrew her motion to halt the speaking tour, but she never made more than a halfhearted effort to interact with the public she’d harmed.
The destroyers of the Soldiers Monument are positioned to receive even lighter punishment than Duran. They won’t go to jail, provided they perform 40 hours of community service and write a statement admitting to their crimes.
Many others who helped destroy the obelisk will never be charged. Santa Fe police officers ceded the Plaza to the criminals, enabling most to escape without being identified.
The way police and prosecutors have handled mob violence on the Plaza raises another question: If Cowboys for Trump or the Proud Boys went on a rampage and destroyed public property in Santa Fe, would they be candidates for restorative justice and receive light punishment?
In her note, Carmack-Altwies wrote: “The restorative justice process is not a ‘secret system,’ it is a practice that has data showing success and has rigor and respect among those interested in criminal justice reform and reduced recidivism in our country and around the world. I can assure you that defendants are being held to account for their crime.”
Her run-on sentence can’t overtake a hard truth: Violent criminals meeting with a handful of handpicked people isn’t justice for all.