A state senator says she’ll push for laws in the coming years to answer a long-troubling question in New Mexico: does the criminal justice system here disproportionately target non-white people? Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat and former law professor, tells New Mexico In Depth she was “stunned” to learn during this year’s legislative session, her first in the Senate, that few agencies collect or share data on the race and ethnicity of people caught up in the system. “I thought, how was I not aware of this?,” she said in an interview this week. “It was really weird.”
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque
So Sedillo Lopez is working up a memorial she plans to introduce at the 2020 session, which begins in January, directing the New Mexico Sentencing Commission to study how — and whether — the state’s jails and prisons gather demographic information on people who are locked up or on probation. Though she doesn’t yet have a detailed plan for the next step, she aims to use the study to bolster a bill in 2021 that would “ensure that this data is collected and continues to be collected regardless of who’s in charge.”
The Sentencing Commission says it’ll be glad to do the work.
Editor’s note:New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur told NMID reporter Jeff Proctor during an interview in late June that he knew nothing about a public defender being appointed for southern New Mexico district attorney Francesca Estevez. On Monday evening, Baur emailed to say, in fact, his office had hired a private attorney, Keren Fenderson, to file a motion on Estevez’s behalf without informing Estevez. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Baur confirmed that he was unaware of the arrangement at the time of the interview with Proctor. Francesca Estevez is too poor to pay for a lawyer. That’s according to state District Judge Douglas Driggers of Las Cruces, who made the finding in a May 1 court order appointing the public defender’s office to represent Estevez as prosecutors pursue alleged violations of the Government Misconduct Act against her.
A member of Albuquerque’s official police watchdog group is questioning the tactics and results of the recent “Metro Surge Operation,” in which 50 New Mexico State Police officers flooded the city ostensibly to help fight violent crime. “This is the perfect atmosphere, the perfect storm for civil rights violations, and it completely undermines the serious energy people have invested in police reform in Albuquerque,” Chelsea Van Deventer of the Albuquerque Police Oversight Board told New Mexico In Depth earlier this week. Homicides and non-fatal shootings have gone up in Albuquerque in recent months, including the high-profile murder of a University of New Mexico baseball player outside a Nob Hill bar last month. In response, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mayor Tim Keller, both Democrats, agreed on the “surge,” with Keller’s office saying publicly the operation would focus on “targeting violent crime in Albuquerque.”
The results, according to a KOAT-TV story, have not matched the stated goal. The station reported 452 arrests by State Police during the operation; 300 people were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor crimes.
Three deputy U.S. Marshals helped Yusef Casanova change out of his dark-colored suit, striped tie and white dress shirt and fitted him with a set of handcuffs after his long legal fight ended Thursday afternoon in an Albuquerque courtroom. Hours earlier, a jury of nine women and three men had convicted the 46-year-old after a four-day trial. The jurors deliberated for less than two hours before finding Casanova guilty of distributing more than five grams of methamphetamine, illegal possession of a firearm by a felon and failure to register a sawed-off shotgun in a national database. Casanova will face 10 years or more in federal prison when Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker sentences him in about three months. Casanova plans to appeal the conviction.
A cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Department of Corrections remains one of the few holes in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s leadership team as she approaches the end of her fourth month in office. Alisha Tafoya Lucero was named interim Corrections secretary on April 9. The first-term Democrat thought she’d filled the post in late January when she named Julie Jones, former boss of the Florida prison system. But Jones backed out in late February, citing “unexpected personal issues in my life that prevent me from being able to move to New Mexico.”
Jones would have succeeded David Jablonski, who served as Corrections secretary from November 2016 through Dec. 31, 2018, former Gov. Susana Martinez’ last day in office.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has vetoed a set of reforms to the state’s probation and parole systems that would have, among other changes, reduced the number of “technical violations” that could land someone back behind bars and required the Parole Board to detail denials for those sentenced to 30-years-to-life who are seeking release. The move comes after state Attorney General Hector Balderas and New Mexico’s 14 district attorneys pushed back against the bill in a letter to the governor as this year’s 60-day legislative session came to a close last month. The prosecutors argued that House Bill 564, if signed into law, “poses a significant public safety risk.”
Lujan Grisham’s veto message is time-stamped Thursday at 11:12 p.m.
“It’s something we’re not necessarily happy about,” Lujan Grisham’s spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, told New Mexico In Depth Friday morning. Changes sought through the bill “will be aggressively and expeditiously addressed in the interim with the DAs and the attorney general. The governor has that full expectation.”
In her veto message, Lujan Grisham sided with HB564’s sponsors — Republican Sen. Sander Rue and Democratic representatives Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Gail Chasey — in pointing out that the prosecutors waited until after the session to complain about the bill.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will sign a bill reforming the way solitary confinement is used in the state’s jails and prisons and another that restricts when private employers can ask job seekers about their past criminal records, her spokesman told New Mexico In Depth on Tuesday. The first-term, Democratic governor is still reviewing — in a few cases, with some consternation — a handful of other criminal justice reforms lawmakers passed during the recently concluded 60-day legislative session, said Tripp Stelnicki, Lujan Grisham’s communications director. Solitary confinement has been a heated issue in New Mexico for years, bringing multi-million-dollar lawsuit settlements and allegations of human rights abuses against inmates in the state. Four Democrats sponsored House Bill 364, defining solitary confinement as holding someone in a cell alone for 22 or more hours a day “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction.” Lujan Grisham’s signature will limit the instances in which state and county jailers use solitary on juveniles, people living with mental illness and pregnant women. The new law also will bring some transparency to the use of solitary.
Lawmakers with an eye toward righting longstanding wrongs in the state’s criminal justice system— real or perceived — achieved success this session, pushing through reforms doomed under former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s vigilant eye as a former prosecutor. Democrats’ bolstered majority in the House, the margin they maintained in the Senate and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s win in November set a different tone coming into the session. And the largest budget surplus in recent memory meant justice system reforms that carried a price tag were suddenly possible. Legislation aimed at reducing New Mexico’s chronically high crime rates cleared the Senate and House, too. But this year’s bills had a different feel from those avidly debated in the recent past.
A set of reforms to the state’s probation and parole systems is headed to the governor’s desk, with subtle changes to how the Parole Board considers requests for freedom by people sentenced to 30-years-to life in prison. House Bill 564 passed the Senate Tuesday after tweaks from that chamber’s Judiciary Committee, then cleared the House on a concurrence vote Wednesday. Current state law forces inmates sentenced to 30-years-to life in prison to show why they should be set free. The bill appears to shift the onus between the inmate and the state. In its original form the bill would have shifted that burden entirely to the state, mandating those inmates be paroled unless the board “makes a finding that the inmate is unable or unwilling to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen.”
The bill heading to the governor now says before paroling an inmate, the board would have to interview the inmate and “consider all pertinent information concerning the inmate.”
Another change to current law would eliminate the requirement that the board consider the “circumstances of the offense.” The revised bill requires the board to detail a finding that release is in the “best interest of society and the inmate,” conclude that the inmate is “willing to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen” and provide in writing specific support for its decision to grant or deny parole to the inmate.
Despite another year in which New Mexico led the nation for fatal police shootings by population, how best to ensure public trust when those cases are reviewed for possible wrongdoing remains a vexing question. And with less than 48 hours left in this year’s 60-day legislative session, another year likely will pass without a fix from lawmakers. At a time when New Mexico is swimming in cash, neither lawmakers nor the state’s 14 district attorneys have appeared to push for the additional money it would take to create a uniform, statewide review system. “This session, there really hasn’t been anything that would address this,” Rick Tedrow, Eleventh Judicial district attorney and immediate past president of the New Mexico District Attorneys Association, told New Mexico In Depth. “In terms of funding for extra prosecutors to focus on these cases, it really should be the DAs asking for that.
Democratic legislative leaders predicted criminal justice reform would be among the top priorities for the 60-day session that began in January. It appears they were right. Several substantial shifts in how New Mexico approaches crime and punishment remain alive as the session speeds toward its conclusion on Saturday. Some of them have been years in the making. A Senate bill to “ban the box,” prohibiting private sector employers from inquiring about people’s past criminal records in the early stages of an employment process, has passed the upper chamber and appears headed for a vote in the House.