Scaled back probation, parole reforms advancing in Legislature

A legislative effort to reform parts of New Mexico’s probation and parole systems is limping along as lawmakers near the halfway mark of this year’s 30-day session. House Bill 263, with a large group of sponsors from both parties, is meant primarily to decrease the number of people on probation and parole who are sent back to jail or prison for relatively minor infractions, so-called “technical violations.” Those include some failed drug tests and missing appointments with a probation or parole officer. If passed and signed, the measure would mark the beginning of a shift for the Corrections Department’s Probation and Parole Division — from a punitive approach to a more restorative philosophy. 

That means helping people address the underlying issues that keep them in the criminal justice system instead of trying to ensure public safety with jail cells — particularly when considering people who commit lesser offenses. 

That core purpose of the bill has remained intact over the past year, as legislators have worked on a “compromise” version with state prosecutors and others following a dust-up over the proposed reforms after last year’s legislative session. The state House and Senate passed a broader set of changes in 2019, but they met Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s veto pen after Attorney General Hector Balderas and all 14 of New Mexico’s district attorneys sent her a letter outlined fatal problems as they saw them. In her veto message, Lujan Grisham asked sponsors to meet with the prosecutors and iron out their differences.

Locking up Resources

Lawmakers will be inundated with funding requests during the 2020 legislative session from across the state, as New Mexico sits poised to enjoy a second year of cash surpluses. It’s a good problem to have. Judges, prosecutors, police and public defenders will be among those in line for budget increases, as they seek to plug holes in the criminal justice system that have festered over the past decade. There will be a few criminal justice system reforms on the agenda as well. 

The cash infusions are sought to fix, at least in part, problems that have long bedeviled the state, including the nation’s lowest paid judges, stubbornly high crime rates and inadequate defense for people of modest means swept up in the criminal justice system in one of America’s poorest states. DA’s offices will be asking for more money to handle increased caseloads stemming from crime rates around the state that never seem to dip much.

BernCo DA: New Mexico AG should review questionable police shootings

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez says he’s done waiting for a so-called “DA panel” to determine whether the Albuquerque police officer who killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes in 2014 should be prosecuted. 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez / Credit: Courtesy of Office of the 2nd Judicial District Attorney

Instead, the first-term, Democratic DA in New Mexico’s most populous district wants the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer to decide. He has referred the case to state Attorney General Hector Balderas, according to a letter he sent to the Hawkes family’s legal team, which was obtained by New Mexico In Depth and the Santa Fe Reporter on Friday. 

And according to the letter, the Hawkes case is just the first. Going forward, he intends to refer all police shooting cases to the AG for a second look if his special prosecutors return recommendations that no charges be filed against the shooting officer. Not so fast, says Matt Baca, Balderas’ spokesman and general counsel.

NM system for reviewing police shootings remains broken

Elizabeth Palma and her son, Anthony Benavidez, loved trips to the cinema. In early 2017 they enjoyed Disney’s live-action remake of “Cinderella” together. It would be their last movie. Months later, Benavidez, 24, lay fatally wounded by police in a Santa Fe apartment that bore the marks of his isolating schizophrenia: walls painted black, aluminum foil covering a bedroom window, heavy blinds draped over another. City officials paid his family $400,000 to settle a civil lawsuit after the killing.

Santa Fe DA promises special prosecutor for fatal 2017 police shooting

District Attorney Marco Serna says he will appoint a special prosecutor to review “additional information” in a 2017 police shooting that killed a 24-year-old man who was living with schizophrenia in his southeast Santa Fe apartment. The move marks a change for Serna, who accepted the conclusion of a panel of three DAs — from Albuquerque, Clovis and Las Vegas, New Mexico — in early 2018 that the two Santa Fe Police officers who fired should not be criminally prosecuted for the killing. Serna’s decision means one of the most controversial police shootings in recent Santa Fe history will get a second look. In March, when Serna announced that the panel had concluded no charges should be filed against officers Jeramie Bisagna and Luke Wakefield, Serna’s spokesman said the first-term Democratic prosecutor who is now running for Congress would adopt the panel’s findings. By that time the family had agreed to accept a $400,000 settlement with the city of Santa Fe in a wrongful death lawsuit.