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.