An early showdown of the 30-day legislative session in Santa Fe spotlighted the competing narratives over one of the state’s most pressing issues: a precipitous rise in crime in Albuquerque and other New Mexico cities.
New Mexico has risen to the top of national lists marking property and violent crime rates in American cities. Crime is up. It’s a painful fact, one that has found no disagreement among lawmakers, judges and Gov. Susana Martinez.
But how to solve it?
Martinez and Chief Justice Judith Nakamura, whom the governor appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2015, offer a study in contrasts.
Martinez, a two-term Republican governor in her final year as the state’s chief executive, has come at the issue like the long-time prosecutor she once was. She regularly blames judicial leniency for the spike and repeats certain phrases and words while showcasing the gruesome details of high-profile crimes, an approach that was evident in her State of the State speech.
“I learned a long time ago as a prosecutor — and it’s just plain common sense — that those who commit crimes will go where the laws are weak and punishments are light,” she said in her remarks to a joint session of the state House and Senate, kicking off the session on Jan. 16.
Also earning her ire: a state constitutional amendment New Mexicans approved in November 2016 with more than 80 percent support. The amendment gives judges authority to hold dangerous arrestees in pre-trial detention without bail, but forbids them from jailing less risky defendants simply because they can’t afford to pay a bondsman.
But Martinez sees a dark scenario for what might be happening as a consequence. Judges, she said, were using the change to release “most defendants back into our communities prior to trial. It’s a bait-and-switch.”
She went on to mention “crime,” “police,” “criminal,” “offenders” and similar terms more than 80 times in the speech, including “judges” a handful of places.
For years, Martinez has emphasized judicial leniency driving violent crime and she has continued to hammer that point this session. But she seldom has backed up her rhetoric with data or reports.
A request by New Mexico In Depth for reports or analysis the governor has used to underpin her claims about judicial leniency elicited only a one-paragraph statement from Martinez’s spokesman.
“From repeat drunk drivers to violent thugs killing police officers and more, there’s no question that it’s time for the Legislature to get serious about tackling crime once and for all,” spokesman Michael Lonergan wrote in an email. “The governor has called on them for years to adopt measures to give more tools and data to law enforcement, increase penalties and get dangerous criminals off the streets — yet year after year lawmakers fail to act. Our communities have suffered long enough and the time is now for the Legislature to put New Mexicans first and act to make New Mexico safer.”
Unlike Martinez, the judiciary, including Nakamura, has come to the debate armed with facts and figures.
The crime problem has many contributors, the judges say.
Nakamura and the Administrative Office of the Courts have cited data from a wide range of sources, including numbers self-reported by cities to the FBI showing increases in Albuquerque and around the state for violent and property crimes during the past several years.
In offering suggestions for what might best reverse the trends, Nakaumura and the courts have cited a synthesized analysis by the National Institute for Justice — a division of the U.S. Department of Justice — that says the threat, real or perceived, of being caught in the act is the best way to deter crime. It’s a generally agreed-upon idea among criminal justice think tanks, academics, advocacy groups and law enforcement groups.
What plants the idea of a quick trip to jail in a would-be criminal’s mind? More police officers on the streets, New Mexico judges say. They point to decreases in police manpower levels, particularly in Albuquerque, that correspond to the upticks in crime.
The judges also have leaned on a multi-sourced report by the Legislative Finance Committee in suggesting more police officers instead of increased penalties. The report draws on data from the city of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice, Pew Trusts and a longtime criminal justice researcher from the University of New Mexico’s Institute for Social Research.
Among the report’s more striking conclusions: although crime rates in Albuquerque have spiked during the past eight years, the number of bookings at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center have gone down, particularly for misdemeanors. In other words, arrests haven’t kept pace with the spike in reports of crime. That’s further evidence, the judges say, that the state and its largest city need more police officers.
In New Mexico’s largest city, for example, the number of sworn Albuquerque Police Department has plummeted from nearly 1,100 officers in early 2010 to about 830 currently. Other departments around the state are facing similar troubles filling the ranks.
The LFC report is careful to point out that it is yet unclear how the passage of the constitutional amendment and other changes to the state’s criminal justice system have impacted crime rates.
The changes include a 2015 state Supreme Court order that imposed strict timelines for the prosecution of criminal cases in Albuquerque. Meanwhile the constitutional amendment restructuring the state’s bail system that the governor criticizes only went into effect in July, far past when crime began spiking in Albuquerque and elsewhere.
Another factor: salaries for state criminal justice system employees, including judges, are low.
Meanwhile, district attorneys from around the state told state lawmakers early in the legislative session that they’re having a hard time keeping prosecutors on staff.
The state Law Office of the Public Defender is struggling. Its chief attorney was held in contempt of court after saying his office couldn’t take on any more cases in one county.
The competing narratives — Martinez’s forceful statements with little corroboration versus the judges’ number-heavy, research-driven presentations — were on display three days after Martinez’s State of the State speech.
That’s when Nakamura went before the Senate Finance Committee armed with reports, analysis and charts, which she referred to regularly.
After walking state lawmakers through the numbers, Nakamura said “Albuquerque has a crime problem. It does not have a court rule problem.”
Arthur Pepin, executive director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, sat next to the chief justice.
“The courts don’t get cases unless a person gets arrested and charged,” Pepin added.
Later that same day, Martinez acknowledged that too few officers can play a role in rising crime rates.
But she returned to judicial leniency as a significant, if not the most important, factor.
“There may have been a reduction in force, of law enforcement officers,” the governor told a gaggle of news reporters. “It didn’t help when they (judges) started the catch and release program by letting people out of jail knowing that they had fewer officers. They weren’t taking account of the number of times they had arrest warrants and (people) hadn’t shown up to court.”
In the two weeks since that day, there has been some bipartisan momentum on crime- and justice system-related bills, and the Legislature’s prefered narrative is coming into focus.
The House, which passed the state budget by a vote of 65 to 3 on Wednesday, reflects the somewhat unexpected influx of “new money” the Legislature has to spread around for the year that begins July, and the criminal justice system appears set for some increases it hasn’t seen in several years.
For example, judicial salaries would jump on average by about 4.5 percent. The judiciary would welcome that — for several years, New Mexico judges’ salaries ranked at or near the bottom nationally in nearly every category. That changed at the beginning of the year, when the state plummeted to the cellar in all categories, according to a new survey released Jan. 1 by the National Center for State Courts.
Court staff also would be in for a 4.5 percent pay bump, which administrators hope would blunt New Mexico’s dismal vacancy, retention and salary rates for court clerks and other employees.
Further, line attorneys working as district attorneys and public defenders will see an average 6.5 percent salary increase statewide if the House version of the budget makes it all the way past the governor. Elected DAs would get a 4.5 percent increase.
None of the increases matches what officials from the state’s courts, indigent defenders offices or DA’s offices wanted. But there are increases for the justice system where cuts and flat budgets have reigned in recent years.
Bennett Baur, the state’s Chief Public Defender, who had sought a 13 percent budget hike, said Wednesday the increase in the proposed state budget won’t get his agency where it needs to be.
“But every little thing helps,” Baur said.
Bipartisan legislative crime bill emerges with a multi-prong approach
On Wednesday, a criminal justice package cleared the House Judiciary Committee on a 10-to-1 vote. The slate of bills evinced a desire among legislators to tackle crime from multiple sides, rather than just clamping down on criminals as Martinez prefers.
It included none of the governor’s high-profile proposals such as reimposing the death penalty or expanding the state’s three-strikes legislation. But it did wrap into one bill five proposals that together seemed to have won bipartisan support in the committee.
One provision will enable correctional facilities to enroll eligible incarcerated individuals into Medicaid, so upon release they can receive health care and treatment for mental illness or addiction if they need it.
“We’ll never get a handle on our property crime problem without addressing the underlying causes of mental illness and substance abuse addictions,” Republican Minority Leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque says.
The legislation also would enhance the offense level to a third-degree felony for a felon in possession of a firearm if the person was previously convicted of a serious violent felony and make it harder for violent criminals to obtain firearms.
The legislation also would make law enforcement agencies with 10 percent vacancy rates eligible for funding to help retain officials who are thinking of retiring. It is viewed as a response to fewer officers on the street.
The criminal justice package drew accolades from a wide spectrum of organizations, including parties not known for backing the same proposals.
“It presents a very balanced view from both sides of the debate and it does it in a very smart way,” said Terri Cole, executive director of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which sometimes finds itself opposing Albuquerque Chamber-backed legislation, gave its blessing, too.
House Speaker Brian Egolf said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the Senate would consider it once the House passes it.
Democratic Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe was careful to say Wednesday he wasn’t speaking for the entire Senate, but he likes the package because it takes a multifaceted approach to a complex situation.
It addresses mental health and addiction treatment, he said.
Should the criminal justice package pass the Senate, it would require the governor’s signature to become law.
It is unclear whether she would sign or veto it. A call to the governor’s spokesman was not returned Wednesday evening.