Joleen Valencia had resisted the temptation to count her days to freedom. She had learned inside a New Mexico prison that tracking time only added to the anxiety of serving a two-year drug-trafficking sentence that started in the spring of 2015, especially after her mother died and granddaughter had been born. She wanted nothing more than to return to her family’s home amid mesas on a reservation north of Albuquerque, and to stay clean after recovering from a heroin addiction. But rather than agonize, she kept busy. She worked daily dishwashing shifts, some lasting as long as 12 hours, to earn 10 cents an hour and eventually enough “good time” for what authorities said would be her new parole date: July 13, 2016.
ByElizabeth Miller, The Criminal Justice Project |
Jaime was just 19 years old when a fight with his girlfriend escalated from what he describes as “a lot of back and forth petty stuff” to a conflict that saw him facing misdemeanor domestic violence charges. Around the same time, he’d survived an attempted homicide and was coping with the news that his daughter was on her way. Rather than pursue a conviction, Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court offered him a pre-prosecution alternative: the Domestic Violence Early Intervention Program. As part of that program, he participated in group and individual counseling sessions and parenting classes for six months. It’s the same amount of time his daughter has been alive.
New Mexico’s judges are the lowest paid in the country. Its chronically underfunded public defenders struggle to represent clients in one of the nation’s poorest states. And prosecutors say they need more money to blunt increases in crime. This situation awaits New Mexico state lawmakers when they convene Tuesday for the 2018 session in Santa Fe. But, for the first time in years, thanks to a projected $200 million to $300 million more in revenue than anticipated, the Legislature could spread serious money around New Mexico’s skeletal criminal justice system after recent budget cuts and years of austerity.
New Mexico in Depth highlighted the work of our fellows earlier this week, but there was a lot more going on in 2017. Here are just a few highlights. Criminal Justice:
Feds’ sting ensnared many ABQ blacks, not ‘worst of the worst’. After a 2016 drug sting, agents from the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) announced they had arrested over 100 of the ‘worst of the worst’ offenders in ABQ. Our story about one of those defendants, Yusef Casanova, explored that claim and found the sting captured a disproportionate number of black people and the ‘worst of the worst’ label is problematic.
Why do they run away? That was the question Bernalillo County’s juvenile justice program staff wanted answered after they noticed a trend. In Albuquerque’s South Valley, youth were leaving home while under house arrest, prompting a warrant and jail time. “We decided to start our work there, at that one point in the system,” said Gerri Bachicha, juvenile detention alternatives administrator for Bernalillo County. They took the question to the kids themselves.
For three days Yusef Casanova hunted for methamphetamine and a gun. On June 4, 2016, a friend met a man in the heart of a hardscrabble area of Albuquerque pocked with pawn shops but dotted with well-loved front yards. They stood outside the Allsup’s convenience store at Zuni Road and Kentucky Street SE. The stranger wanted meth, firearms; the friend brought Casanova in. Like Casanova and his friend, the man was black.
House and Senate lawmakers are pushing identical proposals that would abolish solitary confinement for pregnant women and children and steeply curtail its use on people living with mental illness in New Mexico’s jails and prisons. If passed into law, supporters say either bill would provide a statutory definition for “isolated confinement” in the state and much needed transparency on the scope of the controversial practice of leaving inmates alone in their cells for 22 hours a day or more with little to no contact with others and few opportunities to participate in educational or rehabilitative programs.
“Right now, we do not know on any given day if it’s 100 or 1,000 people in isolated confinement in the state of New Mexico,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, the Democratic sponsor of HB175, said. “Once we have some data, we can have confidence that the Corrections Department and the counties are scaling back the use of solitary confinement.”
Numerous studies, including one by the advocacy group Disability Rights Washington, have shown that isolation in a prison cell can exacerbate existing mental illnesses and create new ones where none existed before. The United Nations and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have argued that solitary confinement is particularly dangerous for children, whose brains are still developing, and condemned its use. New Mexico has a troubled history with solitary confinement.
Tom Chudzinski rode out of Albuquerque on a Greyhound bus before the sun rose one morning last month, his only remaining possessions tucked into a backpack, a small duffel bag and a cardboard box, which held his disassembled bicycle. The retired architect had pulled into Albuquerque five months earlier in a motorhome crowded with the keepsakes from his 62 years of life: power tools, drafting instruments, personal records and clothing. He was living in the home while traveling the western U.S.
The unraveling began on June 3, when Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies knocked on the door of his motorhome and, smelling alcohol on his breath, arrested him on suspicion of drunken driving. Although they hadn’t seen him driving, they believed he had crashed his RV into a parked vehicle at a truck stop that sits on a dusty patch of mesa on the city’s far west side. This story was produced in collaboration with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Last week, the Charles Koch Institute and the Rio Grande Foundation, New Mexico’s libertarian think tank, co-sponsored a discussion in Albuquerque about what they call “over-criminalization.” At their side was the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).