With the growing number of homicides in our state, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has pledged $100 million to put 1,000 new officers on the streets of New Mexico.
This averages out to 30 new officers in every one of New Mexico’s 33 counties. The arrests police officers make are just the first of many steps in holding people accountable for their actions. Every felony arrest is followed by a criminal complaint being filed with the court. If each of those 30 officers makes just one felony arrest each week, that would be an increase of 1,560 felony-level criminal court cases in each county every year. This translates to 51,480 new felony criminal cases statewide.
Once these cases get into court, the officer’s role changes into that of a witness. It is the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney who are responsible for taking each felony case and navigating it through the justice system, while at the same time ensuring the defendant’s constitutional rights are not being violated.
The American Bar Association does not set a specific number of cases a prosecutor may handle, but cautions that prosecutors “should not carry a workload that, by reason of its excessive size or complexity, interferes with providing quality representation, endangers the interests of justice in fairness, accuracy, or the timely disposition of charges, or has a significant potential to lead to the breach of professional obligations.”
For defense attorneys, there is a set number. In 1973, the National Advisory Commission of Criminal Justice Standards and Goals set up by the Nixon administration to improve state criminal justice agencies found public defenders who handle felony cases should have an annual maximum caseload of 150 cases. These standards are still in place.
This means there would have to be 10 additional public defenders in each county to handle the additional 1,560 criminal cases stemming from the arrests made by the new officers. There would also have to be an equal number of prosecutors added to ensure each case is properly addressed by both the prosecutor and defense attorney, so it can be resolved in a timely manner. Cases not resolved in a timely manner are often dismissed, as we witnessed after a surge of state police officers sent into Albuquerque in May 2019.
The criminal justice system here in New Mexico is stretched to capacity. As of the beginning of September, 286 felony cases have been filed in Santa Fe County District Court this year. This is in addition to all the cases still pending from 2018, 2019 and 2020. There are only two District Court judges assigned to the criminal division in the county. They are responsible for bringing these felony cases to trial. The result? Only 33 jury trials were held in Santa Fe County’s District Court, according to the New Mexico Judiciary Annual Report for 2020. Our criminal justice system cannot handle any increase in new cases without additional resources.
If we as a community are serious about beefing up the number of law enforcement officers on our streets, we must make certain the arrests those officers make can be fairly handled by the criminal justice system. That way, people who need to be held accountable for their actions can be. When the Legislature decides what to do with the additional $1.4 billion of revenue in the 2022 budget, it will determine what our priorities are. If addressing crime is at the top of that list, then include funding for additional judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys.