NM lacks criminal justice data on race, ethnicity

From traffic stops to incarceration rates to drug arrests, New Mexico trails other states and the federal system in collecting key criminal justice data, particularly on race and ethnicity, a New Mexico In Depth analysis has found. And despite a push from state lawmakers this 60-day legislative session to improve the state’s data collection efforts to inform better, “evidence-based” criminal justice policies, searching for potential racial disparities in policing, prisons and other areas doesn’t appear much of a priority. “It’s puzzling,” said Steve Allen, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. “If we’re going to have some sort of data-sharing process in place and data gathering, I would think race has to be central to that. It’s just gonna take a little bit of ingenuity and a little bit of prioritization from people in power.”

There are no state rules or laws that require law enforcement agencies to track the race or ethnicity of people their officers contact, stop in vehicles or arrest, according to the top two officials at the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, the state’s clearinghouse for criminal justice information.

ACLU: NM has flawed data about solitary confinement

Cover of ACLU-NM report about discrepancy in NM solitary confinement statistics. The American Civil Liberties Union New Mexico appears to have uncovered a significant statistical deficiency in New Mexico criminal justice data. In September 2018, the state Corrections Department reported 4 percent of inmates in its prisons were being held in solitary confinement — defined as spending 22 hours or more a day alone for 15 or more consecutive days. A research team working with the ACLU found that the rate was actually 9 percent. Steve Allen, policy director for the ACLU of New Mexico, chalks the disparity up to a lack of uniform policies, practices and data collection.

Measure to change parole process for ‘30-year lifers’ advances

People serving 30-years-to-life sentences in New Mexico state prisons for murder and certain other crimes could soon find an easier path to freedom after three decades behind bars. On a 51-16 vote Sunday, the state House of Representatives passed a bill that would mandate a shift in state law: from inmates having to show why they should be released after 30 years to requiring the Parole Board to demonstrate convincingly why they should remain locked up. House Bill 564, sponsored by Democratic representatives Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Gail Chasey, Republican Sen. Sander Rue and Democratic Sen. Richard Martinez, closely mirrors a proposal that died in committee in 2017 after then-Gov. Susana Martinez signaled she would veto it. The measure tracks an issue New Mexico In Depth and the Santa Fe Reporter uncovered in an investigation published in March 2017. Among the findings: Power at the Parole Board had concentrated with Sandra Dietz, the Martinez-appointed board chair who was philosophically opposed to paroling people who had received sentences of 30-to-life; and just six times out of 89 did the board release someone on parole between 2010 and early 2017—among the lowest rates in the nation.

Despite concerns, judge refuses to dismiss criminal case against black man

Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker / Courtesy of U.S. District Court

A federal judge has denied an Albuquerque black man’s request to dismiss methamphetamine trafficking and gun charges based on his claim that agents targeted him because of his race during a monthslong undercover sting operation in 2016. In a 15-page order issued Feb. 11, U.S. Senior District Judge James Parker appeared to wrestle with whether agents from the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had singled out 46-year-old Yusef Casanova and other black people for arrest while ignoring the crimes of white people. That was the core of Casanova’s argument in asking Parker to dismiss his case. Noting that aspects of the operation — and the results of other ATF operations around the country — were “troubling,” Parker, wrote that Casanova had not overcome the high threshold necessary to prove illegal racial profiling.

Legislators aim to give convicted felons second chance

Warren Rivera walked out of federal prison nearly two months ago after serving about seven years for his conviction on a charge of illegal firearm possession. First on the 40 year old’s list: Get a job. As a “person who has totally changed his life,” Rivera fired off 30 job applications. Not one employer has contacted him for so much as an interview. “If you [the employer] don’t sit down and look at me in the eye, you’ll never know you had the perfect candidate,” Rivera, who is African American, told New Mexico In Depth in a recent interview.

Lujan Grisham says her administration will look into Hepatitis C prison problems

At a news conference Wednesday, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham responded to a New Mexico In Depth story that showed while the state has the largest known share of prisoners diagnosed with hepatitis C in the nation, few are being treated. That’s despite new, nearly fail-safe treatment medications coming onto the market at increasingly low prices.  

New Mexico faces difficult choices, Lujan Grisham said, partly because so much is out of its control. Incarcerated individuals who contract the disease on the outside might only become aware of their plight after a screening in prison, Lujan Grisham said. Beginning in 2009, New Mexico began offering all prisoners screening for hepatitis C, which is not a universal practice.

An ignored epidemic in New Mexico’s prisons

The treatment was simple — three pills a day, best taken on a full stomach — and it cured Gabriel Serna of hepatitis C in eight weeks. He just had to wait eight years to get it. In theory, revolutionary medications have made the blood-borne, sometimes-fatal infection curable, so people with the disease need not endure the inexorable and irreversible damage it causes to their livers. Unless they are in one of New Mexico’s prisons, like Serna was for much of his wait. That’s because although the state’s inmates have the highest prevalence of hepatitis C of any group in New Mexico — more than four in 10 are infected — the prisons are hardly treating any of them: Out of some 3,000 prisoners diagnosed with the disease, just 46 received treatment for hepatitis C during the 2018 fiscal year.

APD officer: 2016 federal sting operation focused on ‘volume,’ not ‘higher-level guys’

Tim Hotle, a 12-year veteran of the Albuquerque Police Department, in sworn testimony this week undercut federal authorities’ long-running narrative about a controversial 2016 law enforcement operation that snatched up disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics. During his 45 minutes or so on the witness stand, Hotle told U.S. Senior District Judge James Parker that as a representative of APD he had helped plan the Albuquerque operation pushed by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the local U.S. Attorney’s Office. Authorities have repeatedly contended they arrested “the worst of the worst,” and a summary report of the operation stated that its goal was to infiltrate drug trafficking organizations “facilitated by” Mexican cartels. Most of the 103 people arrested, however, were picked up for their involvement in small-quantity drug sales; few had the types of violent criminal histories authorities said they were going after. Hotle’s testimony further undermined the federal government’s claims.  

“We weren’t after the higher-level guys,” Hotle said from the stand during a court hearing involving one of the defendants arrested in the operation.

New direction, and infusion of money, seen for criminal justice system

Lawmakers are hopeful that 2019 brings an opportunity to significantly overhaul major parts of the New Mexico criminal justice system, after what one key state senator called a “lost decade” that saw myriad ideas but scant action. Bills are expected to address chronically high crime rates across the state, with a focus on speedier justice in cases involving violence and more lifeboats for people whose lesser crimes have saddled them with the stigma of a criminal record. There’s talk of a massive “omnibus” bill that would feature changes to New Mexico’s probation and parole systems, reparations for crime victims, the way law enforcement uses eyewitness testimony to seek convictions and several other laws. Then there are the reforms that, in years past, have found support from both political parties but ultimately met the veto pen of Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor who for eight years stuck to her belief that New Mexico needed tougher penalties for lawbreakers, but largely stiff-armed proposals to address systemic injustices. Those shifts — likely to be proposed in individual bills — would include limiting the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons and jails, creating a pathway for some offenders to have their criminal records wiped clean after a period of time and prohibiting private-sector employers from inquiring about job applicants’ past convictions in most instances.