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.

Secrecy at NM federal court appears unchanged

A longstanding culture of secrecy in New Mexico’s federal courts appears unchanged after a pair of New Mexico In Depth stories exposed it last fall and one of the state’s leading government transparency advocates called for change. We’re using the word “appears” because neither the court nor the big, publicly funded and mandated law firms that practice there every day have answered NMID’s questions for this story yet. (After our inquiries, the court clerk said the chief judge has agreed to an interview in a couple weeks.) 

But using a court records searching trick we learned last year, NMID did a little spot checking to see how much access the public has in cases where people’s freedom is nearly always on the line. The picture doesn’t look any better than last year. More on that later.

Agreement on NM probation, parole reforms seems stuck in the mud

Lawmakers and prosecutors appear as far apart as ever on reform proposals for New Mexico’s probation and parole systems, despite Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham admonishing them to find common ground in April. That’s when the first-term Democratic governor vetoed a reform bill — with significant consternation — that would have shifted the systems away from incarceration as a first resort and likely seen significantly fewer people returning to prison and jail. 

The disagreements center largely on who should be locked back up for violating their probation and who should not, and a change that would have required the Parole Board to issue detailed, written findings when it denies someone’s release after 30 years behind bars. If changes favored by legislators become law, potentially thousands of people in New Mexico who are currently locked up would remain under state supervision, but not behind bars. It could burden the justice system, creating the need for new jobs and monitoring mechanisms, but also save the public millions in lock-up costs, legislative analysts say. Lawmakers have pushed the changes because they say a shift toward rehabilitation and providing services to lower-level offenders can help them turn their lives around and stay out of the justice system.

More parents will get help with child care under CYFD proposal

A toddler waits while her companions finish an Easter cake for students at Bright Beginnings Child Development Center in Jal, NM. More New Mexico families will qualify for child care assistance without being wait-listed, and could stay longer on the program under proposed rules posted Monday by the Children Youth and Families Department. Under current eligibility limits put in place in the wake of a lawsuit against CYFD, families can qualify and stay on the child care program if they make less than two times the federal poverty level, but not one dollar more. The proposal would take the exit point up to 250% of the poverty level. 

To put the changes in perspective, a single mother with two children could make up to $42,660 per year and qualify, and could keep getting child care assistance with increasing co-pays until she earned $53,325. About 90 percent of child care assistance recipients are single-parent households.

Trump tweets beg the question, what kind of country do we want?

I wrote the following essay for NMID’s weekly newsletter and am posting it on NMID because I believe we as a country must have a conversation about race. Our president, and his actions, are forcing us to. In a democracy, which relies on a vigorous competition of ideas and viewpoints, one of journalism’s duties is to prompt and join in on discussions about uncomfortable subjects. And race, at least for a significant portion of our country’s population, is uncomfortable.  Hopefully this essay will invite such a discussion. Feel free to comment, but keep it respectful.

After initial bump, CYFD proposes tighter eligibility for child care help

When NM In Depth reported on a settlement earlier this month in a lawsuit against the Children Youth and Families Department over its policies on child care assistance, a big money question was left hanging. CYFD agreed to temporarily bump initial eligibility for child care subsidies to families earning up to 200% of the federal poverty level, from 150%, but the department would need supplementary funding if it was going to keep it at that level. Part of the settlement with OLÉ and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty also said the department needed to come up with new eligibility rules within 90 days, and give the public a chance to weigh in. This week the department posted those proposed changes — taking eligibility to apply for assistance to just 160% of the federal poverty level. Those who already have the benefit would continue to keep it until they reach 200% of FPL.

Judge sees progress in state efforts on Medicaid, SNAP

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales laid out the stakes in a long-simmering lawsuit over the Human Services Department’s record of denying food stamp and Medicaid benefits to eligible New Mexicans during a status hearing Thursday at the federal courthouse in Las Cruces. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales

He’d visited the HSD office on Utah Street in Las Cruces where he had looked over cases with a front-line worker there. One client was a single mom with two kids under 6. She’d lost SNAP benefits because she had not submitted documents that apparently were already in the system. Then her family lost Medicaid benefits, even though they weren’t up for renewal, because of the decision on food stamps — something that violates federal rules.

NMID wins top honors in regional, state journalism contests

New Mexico In Depth collected six awards – two first-place and four second-place – in a regional journalism contest that pit it against the largest newspapers, radio and TV stations in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The honors, part of the annual Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies contest, were announced last week at the Denver Press Club.  

NMID took first place in the legal enterprise and education enterprise reporting categories, according to SPJ. In the former, Jeff Proctor and Justin Howarth won for a three-story collaboration between NMID and the Santa Fe Reporter, Santa Fe’s alternative weekly newspaper, beating out the Salt Lake City Deseret News newspaper and Westword, an independent news outlet in Denver, for top honors. The series examined how an influential New Mexico powerbroker might have escaped a drunken driving charge in Albuquerque and disclosed that prosecutors had misled the public about a plea deal with the former Cabinet secretary in Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.

The hygienist will see you now at Lynn Middle School

There was something poetic about Lynn Community Middle School’s dental clinic opening on Wednesday. That day the school hosted its monthly food pantry for neighborhood families. And it was the same day Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law House Bill 589, which sets up an initiative to take the community school model statewide. Every Wednesday, students at Lynn Middle School will be able to get preventive dental care right down the hall from their classrooms. The clinic is staffed by dental hygiene students from Doña Ana Community College. Those are just the kinds of things community schools are meant to do — bring social services to students so they can concentrate on learning, and become a resource for the surrounding community.