Locking up Resources

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Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen of the Santa Fe Reporter

Lawmakers will be inundated with funding requests during the 2020 legislative session from across the state, as New Mexico sits poised to enjoy a second year of cash surpluses. It’s a good problem to have. Judges, prosecutors, police and public defenders will be among those in line for budget increases, as they seek to plug holes in the criminal justice system that have festered over the past decade.

There will be a few criminal justice system reforms on the agenda as well. 

The cash infusions are sought to fix, at least in part, problems that have long bedeviled the state, including the nation’s lowest paid judges, stubbornly high crime rates and inadequate defense for people of modest means swept up in the criminal justice system in one of America’s poorest states.

DA’s offices will be asking for more money to handle increased caseloads stemming from crime rates around the state that never seem to dip much. The Law Office of the Public Defender has managed to plug some holes after an increase last year, but the lawyers who are state-mandated to represent those who can’t afford counsel remain overburdened.

Finally, according to officials who spoke with NMID, the courts will seek new judgeships to relieve the workload on some judges and additional funding for other court programs.

As it has dominated newspaper headlines and television broadcasts, New Mexicans can expect to see the crime issue front and center as the session begins Jan. 21.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat entering her second session, is pushing a comprehensive crime package, her spokeswoman wrote in an email to New Mexico In Depth. “It will include proactive, evidence-based proposals to reduce crime and to protect all New Mexicans and those who visit us.”

As is so frequently the case, Albuquerque with its perennially high crime rate is likely to factor strongly in legislative priorities for crime prevention. Mayor Tim Keller is seeking $20 million for “crime fighting technology” and $10 million for violent crime prevention programs. And money to hire dozens of new State Police officers is expected to be up for debate.

Criminal justice reforms

The 2019 session saw a number of long-sought criminal justice reforms. Lawmakers passed a “Ban the Box” bill that bars a question on employment applications about whether a person has a felony conviction. And they limited the way jails and prisons use solitary confinement on inmates, particularly pregnant women, people living with severe mental illness and children.

But there was unfinished business — and a few issues legislators hadn’t been considering until news stories spurred discussion.

Although Lujan Grisham’s office was reluctant to discuss specifics on some systemic reforms percolating as the session approaches, lawmakers who spoke with NMID appear confident that several hot topics will be on the agenda. 

Knowing who’s caught up in the system

One issue that’s sure to be heard when lawmakers convene: A path for the state to finally begin collecting race and ethnicity data in some areas of the justice system.

New Mexico has trailed most other states in identifying the demographics of people encountered by police, arrested, locked up and sentenced, as NMID reported during the 2019 session.

State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat, is sponsoring a memorial that would direct the New Mexico Sentencing Commission to study whether the state’s jails and prisons collect race and ethnicity data on people who are behind bars both before and after being sentenced. 

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez

“I don’t expect there to be any problems with this whatsoever in terms of it passing,” Sedillo Lopez said. “It is not a controversial idea to ensure that we know who is incarcerated in our prisons and jails.”

Conversations with numerous justice system researchers and observers during 2019 showed her how complex data collection can be, however, she said.

“This goes from the traffic stop to the arrest to the court process to an appeals that might be filed and ultimately to imprisonment,” Sedillo Lopez said. “Right now, so many of these entities struggle to communicate; there’s no follow through. And there’s no way to just snap your fingers and make this happen.

Sedillo Lopez said the memorial would focus on collecting demographic information from incarcerated individuals first, to ensure that data is self reported, from which regular reports would allow examination of demographic trends. 

The Sentencing Commission has agreed to spearhead a task force to dig deeper into demographic questions in the system. The group’s work, she said, will form the basis for a bill in 2021 that will require race and ethnicity data collection.

Probation and Parole 

Expect a stickier criminal justice debate — one that has thrust Lujan Grisham between the state’s district attorneys and the attorney general and criminal justice reformers in the Legislature — to return for lawmakers’ consideration in January.

Last year, the Legislature passed on wide bipartisan margins a bill that would have significantly reduced the number of “technical violations” — including failed drug tests or failure to show up for a meeting — that send people on probation and parole back to jail or prison. The goal was to leave incarceration as an option for the state’s more serious offenders and offer programs to help other people stay out of the criminal justice system.

With an unusual veto message, Lujan Grisham shot down the measure, which included several other changes to the state Corrections Department’s Probation and Parole Division, saying essentially that she would have signed the bill had it not been for objections raised by the state’s district attorneys and attorney general after the bill had cleared the Legislature. 

State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat, one of the bill’s sponsors, said several “productive” meetings with prosecutors and others opposed to the 2019 version have led to a compromise he is confident will make it onto the 2020 legislative agenda.

Lujan Grisham’s spokesman told NMID some version of the probation and parole reform bill will be introduced, but officials were still working out specifics. 

This year’s bill, which has gone through several drafts, is likely to beef up the definition for who has “absconded” from probation or parole, Maestas said, giving law enforcement more leeway on who could potentially be arrested for evading officers. The new bill also will likely “add teeth to some of the more serious technical violations,” allowing law enforcement and judges to send people back behind bars if they don’t comply with the conditions of their release.

“This version of the bill will lower recidivism and prison costs, but also help get people back on their feet and away from the criminal system,” he said.

The bill also is likely to include the elimination of “parole costs,” which require people placed on parole to pay $125 a month in fees, and “probation costs,” which add up to a little less than $20 a month.

“That’s part of a national movement away from excessive fees and fines,” Maestas said. “Do we really want to be sending people back inside because they can’t pay?”

Another compromise in this year’s probation and parole bill: Lawmakers plan to eliminate a section that would have required the state Parole Board to issue written findings when denying parole to people sentenced for capital crimes such as murder when they come up for parole after serving 30 years.

That portion of the bill was a sticking point for those opposed last year and formed the crux of their rallying cry when asking the governor to veto it after the session ended.

“We simply didn’t want the headache this time around,” Maestas said. “We are instead going to encourage the Parole Board to do written findings on its own.”

The defense lawyer, who in the past served as a prosecutor, does expect the bill to create one new debate — around a proposal to remove the probation division from the auspices of the Corrections Department. Bill sponsors want to create a new state division to supervise people on probation. 

The idea, Maestas said, is to change the culture in the state’s probation services to focus more on violent offenders and “high-risk offenders.”

“There will be pushback on that initiative,” he said.

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