Long sought criminal justice reforms head to Governor

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.

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.

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.

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.

NM guv candidates differ on plans for state’s troubled criminal justice system

Attack ads, political bottle tossing and recriminations have marked this year’s race to replace outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez, who is leaving office due to term limits. The campaign’s increasingly dark tone illustrates the state of play in politics here in New Mexico and across the nation. But under the tribalism lies something else: A set of stark differences in visions held by the two candidates, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce, who have both abandoned seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for a shot at the Governor’s Mansion. During three televised debates, Pearce and Lujan Grisham have hurled broadsides and frontal attacks at one another on a host of issues bedeviling the state — from education to immigration, economic development to marijuana legalization, energy to water conservation. Clashes over how to address New Mexico’s persistently high crime rates, particularly in Albuquerque, have torched some of the race’s oxygen, too.

Newspaper’s lawsuit forced open pardon documents

For the first time, SFR and New Mexico In Depth can present vignettes of Gov. Susana Martinez’s pardon files — stories about crime, punishment and redemption. If not for a years-long legal fight, the public likely would never have seen the stories. In 2013, SFR sued the governor for failing to turn over various public records. The most significant of them were the applications people had made to the governor requesting pardons. Martinez’s office argued executive privilege shielded the pardon files from disclosure.

Patchwork health care for reservation inmates raises concern

At a tribal jail in Washington state, an inmate with a broken leg banged on his cell door, screaming for pain medication, only to be denied. Hundreds of miles away, a diabetic man jailed on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming needed insulin, yet government records say authorities were unable to get any for him. And jail staff at other reservation lockups on several occasions mistakenly gave inmates the wrong medication. These episodes, and dozens of others noted in limited detail in 2016 jail incident reports collected by the federal government, underscore what health professionals and jail administrators describe as a deep-seated problem: Scores of federally funded jails on reservations have no in-house nurses or other medical staff, often leaving corrections officers to scramble in emergencies to determine whether to send an inmate to the hospital, or provide basic care themselves — sometimes with unfortunate consequences. Jail data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs from 2017 was not yet available.