ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The top prosecutor in New Mexico’s busiest judicial district said Wednesday that crime rates are growing dire and the state’s troubled criminal justice system needs to be reformed.
In a meeting with a special panel of state lawmakers, District Attorney Raul Torrez outlined crime rates nationally, across New Mexico and in the Albuquerque area.
When it came to auto thefts, property crimes, violent crimes and murder, he said Albuquerque outpaced New Mexico and other areas of the nation between 2013 and 2016.
He also told the bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee that the uptick in crime, staff shortages and court rules are affecting how his office must manage its caseload.
If solutions can be found for his district, they can be used elsewhere in the state, Torrez said.
“You have to act now,” Torrez said. “You have to be bold, leave the politics out of it, focus on what works and we will get to the right place.”
The work of the subcommittee comes as discontent simmers across the state over the best way to reduce crime.
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat who co-chairs the subcommittee, compared the justice system to a factory.
“The question is how do we make that factory as efficient as possible?” he asked.
Crime has become the top issue for candidates vying to be the next mayor of Albuquerque, and it’s at the center of an ongoing feud over an effort by court officials to overhaul New Mexico’s bail bond system.
Some top law enforcement officers and district attorneys have complained that new rules on releasing defendants aren’t working as intended.
Some defendants have been accused of committing new crimes after being released, spurring public outcry over what some have described as a catch-and-release program.
The new procedures were laid out by the state Supreme Court in June and are the target of a lawsuit by the bail bond industry and a handful of lawmakers.
The changes were the result of a constitutional amendment approved by voters last November. The aim was to establish provisions to ensure dangerous defendants remain incarcerated as they await trial, while allowing for the release of nonviolent suspects who might otherwise languish in jail because they cannot afford bail.
In Bernalillo County, prosecutors requested that close to 200 defendants remain in custody. The office has won a favorable judgment in only about a third of those cases.
“The rules are not lined up with what people thought they were voting on,” Torrez said.
Torrez and other district attorneys from around the state will meet Thursday in Albuquerque to talk about the unintended consequences of the bail reform and changes that can be made in the way pretrial detention hearings are conducted.
The state Supreme Court will have the final say on the rules.
Torrez said he sees the collection of data as key in targeting crime in the Albuquerque area. By looking at the numbers, he said, he wants his office to be able to work with police to identify who is driving crime, not just be there to prosecute offenders after the fact.
The district attorney’s office has a grant to work with a researcher at the University of New Mexico. Torrez plans to seek permanent funding for the effort.
Some lawmakers voiced concerns about providing more funding for prosecutors, saying increases in other parts of the justice system — public defenders and the courts — would also be necessary. They also lamented the lack of alternative treatment programs for low-risk offenders who have mental health or addiction problems.