The criminal justice system in New Mexico is headed for a reckoning.

All sides — judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, victims, criminals and the community at large — should take care as this reckoning occurs that we safeguard constitutional protections while at the same time protecting the people of this state. Because right now, many New Mexicans feel unsafe. They believe justice is neither swift nor sure and that too many criminals go unpunished.

Not all of that is based on reality, but make no mistake, when criminal justice reforms are written and passed into law, feelings rather than facts too often influence the direction.



The reality is that crime in the United States has dipped precipitously in recent decades.

FBI figures show that between 1993 and 2019, violent crime fell 49 percent. Specifically, robberies decreased 68 percent; murder/non-negligent manslaughter, 47 percent; aggravated assault, 43 percent. Property crime fell 55 percent, with declines in burglary, 69 percent; motor vehicle theft, 64 percent; larceny-theft, 49 percent.

But that’s a national picture. New Mexicans know Albuquerque set a homicide record in 2019 with 81 people killed, one that already has been broken. Perceptions of violence, true or not, can affect how governments act and political campaigns are run. In Albuquerque, crime is the issue in the race for mayor, with incumbent Tim Keller being targeted for the city’s violent crime problems by his opponents — current Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales and conservative radio host Eddy Aragon.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has taken notice, facing harsh criticism from Republicans who claim the governor does not take crime seriously.

Republicans have called for a special session to deal with crime. Lujan Grisham and Democrats in the Legislature, in turn, are promising crime legislation for the 2022 regular session.

Their approaches to the problem could not be more contrasting.

Republicans have focused on legislation to increase penalties, including enacting a three-strikes law that would call for life sentences after three convictions. While punishment should be swift and sure, it should not be cruel as three-strikes laws can be. Right now in Pennsylvania, a homeless man who failed to pay full price for a drink — he owed 43 cents on a Mountain Dew — potentially faces a life sentence because of that state’s three-strikes law.

The Democratic package focuses more on treating crime at the source, including money for mental health care and expanding substance abuse treatment. But it also would increase penalties for such crimes as second-degree murder. A large part of Democratic proposals would attempt to deal with gun violence, including creating penalties for people who don’t properly store weapons later used in crimes.

A focus of both Republicans and Democrats will be changing how the justice system deals with defendants accused of crimes, especially violent ones, before trial. Important bail reform, passed through a constitutional amendment in 2016, made it difficult to keep defendants in jail before trial; prosecutors have to prove a defendant is either a flight risk or a danger to the community. The bar is high — “clear and convincing” evidence.

The reform was necessary since the old system meant that people without means stayed in jail no matter how trivial the crime while people with access to cash could be released, even when the crime was horrific. But the new system is being criticized as one where cops arrest, judges release and more crimes are committed.

A recent University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research report showed, after analyzing 10,000 felony cases, the current system is 95 percent effective in preventing those being released from engaging in violent behavior before trial. That means, however, in 500 cases — that 5 percent where the system fails — violence does occur. That violence has a ripple effect across communities.

Just this month, Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies rightly expressed concern a defendant in a particularly brutal road rage case was free before trial. The accused, Eleazar Flores-Torres, 47, is accused of running over another man three times after a traffic dispute on Sept. 10 — both men’s children were in their cars at the time. He could not be held, the judge ruled, because the DA had not shown either that he was a flight risk or a community danger.

Flores-Torres is free — with an electronic monitoring device — while he awaits trial on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated battery, abuse of a child, leaving the scene of an accident and failure to give information and render aid. The district attorney is appealing the decision.

Fighting crime and ensuring a safe community is complicated. But for the system to work, the people must have confidence justice is fair and certain. In New Mexico, that confidence needs to be restored.

(6) comments

Emily Hartigan

Thanks for the stunning example of the idiocy of a "three strikes" law: $.43 short on a Mountain Dew. It's a colorful example of the bizarre notion that baseball metaphors should rule criminal justice. It seems that killing folks is taken too lightly in NM, including drunk driving manslaughter.

But mostly smarter not meaner, is what law enforcement needs. The recent confrontation on Cerrillos that culminated in a de-escalated capture (that guy isn't getting out on bail, I'd guess) rather than death illustrates that at least in Santa Fe, the cops are getting smarter.

Andrew Lucero

Yes, a reckoning is coming... Vote Not to Retain.

Mike Johnson

Yes, a reckoning is coming. It does seem the NM citizens are feed up with the soft-on-crime left wing politicians, judges, and DAs that continue treating crime like a health issue, as though the more leniency and "understanding" and "treatment"we can give criminals, it will all just go away. That approach is NOT working, just like "restorative justice", just fancy $50 words for a 5 cent problem that should be treated in a totally different manner. Will the voters actually wake up and see the left wing politicians they keep electing are not interested in really solving crime in the ways that work, or will they fall for the same old policies and big words that have accomplished nothing and led us to where we are today and keep them in office? I know what I think is going to happen.

Scott Smart

Interesting that you view this to be a "left wing" issue and only a "left wing" issue.

If it was only that simple...

Chris Mechels

Trust the New Mexican to make matter worse with their "analysis"... For instance they seem to applaud our "hardline" DA who "rightly expressed concern a defendant in a particularly brutal road rage case was free before trial". After looking at the incident I find the judge got it right. We have no forum to examine this, and there is no oversight of the DA, certainly not by the AG, who himself needs oversight. THAT is the biggest NM problem, our "justice" system has NO effective oversight, since the Grand Jury was neutered in the 1990s.

Also lacking from the "analysis", mention of NM police training, which was destroyed in 2013, in an illegal LEA Board action. The NM Attorney General, Balderas, Chairs the Board, and will not deal with this problem... Choose the next AG with this in mind, as the LEA Board Chair has a central role to play. Don't let Brian Colon get this role, as he's pathetic.

Sadly, the New Mexican is near totally ineffective on reporting police matters. As in this piece, when they "engage", they seem to make matters worse.

Mike Johnson

[thumbup]

Welcome to the discussion.

Thank you for joining the conversation on Santafenewmexican.com. Please familiarize yourself with the community guidelines. Avoid personal attacks: Lively, vigorous conversation is welcomed and encouraged, insults, name-calling and other personal attacks are not. No commercial peddling: Promotions of commercial goods and services are inappropriate to the purposes of this forum and can be removed. Respect copyrights: Post citations to sources appropriate to support your arguments, but refrain from posting entire copyrighted pieces. Be yourself: Accounts suspected of using fake identities can be removed from the forum.