ALBUQUERQUE, NM (KRQE) – What should Albuquerque do with the city’s criminals? Is locking and throwing away the key the correct answer? Or should they be withdrawn from prison and sent to social and medical care programs to provide assistance? Does the decision change depending on the extent of the offense?
These are key questions that politicians, law enforcement, lawyers, and citizens across the city are discussing. Nobody denies that Albuquerque has a problem with crime, but opinions differ widely on what to do about it.
Diversion programs and social services, such as drug treatment programs, have existed in New Mexico for decades. In fact, US Department of Justice reports from the 1970s mention the nationwide First Offenders Program, which was designed to keep teenagers out of jail. Now, nearly 50 years later, the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office and other offices across the state continue to offer similar distractions for junior and junior offenders. That year Albuquerque also announced the Rapid Accountability Diversion Program, “which aims to end the pipeline that escalates first-time offenders into lifelong criminals.”
These distraction programs generally do not apply to violent criminals. The idea, however, is that it enables them to stay away from a criminal life by keeping low-level offenders on track, which in turn could reduce violent crime in the future. “If we intervene early enough with such defendants and provide them with treatment, support and help, the chances that they will commit crimes again are really very slim,” said Nicole Morales of the Bernalillo District Attorney’s Office on KRQE News 13 last year when they discussed their Pre-Prosecution Diversion Program.
Bennett Baur, the chief public defender for the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender, says the distraction is all about public safety. “What we really want is the greatest possible public safety for the dollar,” he says.
“Until recently there was the idea that you could move out of social problems, behavioral health, and substance abuse. We found that this is not the case, ”he says. “Just walking through the police, arrests, jails and prisons is not only inefficient but ineffective too.”
Distraction or prison?
The choice between distraction and incarceration is “a perfect example of the over-simplification and nature of unnecessary framing of certain issues,” Bernalillo District Attorney Raul Torrez told KRQE News 13 during an interview for the New Mexico News Podcast. “We can do both,” he says.
“We can provide additional resources for people with addiction problems. We can and should seek and allocate additional resources to individuals who are subordinate offenders with either limited criminal history or a history with no evidence of violence. “
However, Albuquerque Police Department chief Harold Medina told KRQE News 13 that the city may be over-reliant on rerouting programs. “Lately, I think it has gotten to the point where things have gone in one direction so far [towards diversion] that we can now hear the public screaming, ‘We want people to be held accountable,’ ”he said on the KRQE News 13 podcast.
“There needs to be a balance between many social utilities and law enforcement. And we have to be able to say that we want to help people with drug problems, but as a community we have to draw a line, ”says Medina.
In fiscal year 2021, according to the New Mexico Administrative Office of the District Attorneys in the 2nd District Court, which also includes Bernalillo County, only 92 cases were referred to rerouting programs prior to indictment. That is less than half a percent of all cases the public prosecutor has handled during this time.
The story continues below
In fiscal 2021, cases in Bernalillo County were diverted less than many other parts of the state. Data from the New Mexico Administrative Office of the District Attorneys and the Legislative Finance Committee.
Several other districts across New Mexico have higher redirect rates, the data suggests. Judicial District 1, which includes, for example, Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties, diverted 3.5% of the 4,731 cases presented to it in fiscal year 2021. That means that out of 100 prosecuted cases, the 1st judicial district was diverted roughly six defendants from prison or jail. In the 2nd judicial district, which also includes Albuquerque, only about one diversion per 100 charges was made in fiscal year 2021.
On December 20, 2021, 133 active participants were enrolled in Bernalillo County’s Pre-Prosecution Diversion Program, according to the public defender’s law firms. That is an increase from 90 participants two months ago. Still, distraction is not an option for all accused offenders, even if they meet the eligibility criteria. And some may not be able to complete the entire program.
“The program lasts anywhere from six months to two years,” said Julpa Davé, a prosecutor who heads the Albuquerque crime department. Participants “go to counseling, they have drug abuse treatment, they have drug and alcohol tests. And if their case requires a refund, they will have to make payments for the refund. So it’s basically like the client is on probation, other than going through the judicial system, but through the prosecutor’s office [District Attorney’s] Office.”
The program has no set time to complete, which can be challenging for some defendants. And some are simply not ready for treatment, says Baur from the public prosecutor’s office. Other times, there is concern that they will not be able to complete the program successfully, he adds. Transportation issues and program costs are also an obstacle for some people, says Jennifer Barela, Albuquerque Borough’s public defender.
“For many of our customers, just getting to the program can be difficult,” says Barela. And “at one point our customers couldn’t pay for the drug tests.”
But Barela and others from the prosecutor say these barriers and kinks in the system are being worked out in collaboration with the prosecutor.
The goal is to ensure that more people can use distractions that help them improve their lives, says Julpa Davé of the prosecutor’s office. Ultimately, Davé explains, public defenders, prosecutors and other stakeholders are directing “something that has a really lasting impact,” and not just a program that simply releases accused criminals before moving on. Distraction can help them “really thrive as a person in this community and as a productive member of society,” says Davé.
How well does the redirection work?
When it comes to diversion, “there is some evidence that it saves money and resources,” says Noah Painter-Davis, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico who is currently researching diversion in New Mexico. Such programs allow prosecutors, courts of law and correctional facilities to “focus resources on higher-level or serious crimes such as violent crime,” he says.
But because there are many different types of redirects and not a lot of data from the different programs, “it is difficult to be definitive about whether it will work or not,” adds Painter-Davis. However, he says that many diversion programs connect offenders to services within their community, such as therapy or drug treatment programs. These services, he says, help both the individual perpetrators and the community in which they live.
“Linking people to services has been shown to be effective,” says Painter-Davis. There has been a recent push to provide criminals with the services they need. “I think that’s good,” he says.
Some of these services are built into non-traditional courts, such as the Juvenile Drug Court. Painter-Davis calls these “problem-solving courts”.
“They rely less on traditional forms of punishment,” explains Painter-Davis. “They rely less on longer sentences or long probation periods, and they rely more on locking people into a package of services, such as: [or] Educational programs to either address problem behaviors or to increase their marketability in the labor market. “
“What these courts recognize is that these populations have unique risks and unique needs,” he says. “And because the courts are geared towards these specific population groups, they can in many cases better address these risks, needs and strengths.”
What about the downsides of redirecting?
While redirect programs and “problem-solving courts” have some clear advantages, Painter-Davis explains that some people might argue that they are not always as effective as they could be, or that they are not always applied to the right offenders.
While distraction programs are often designed to keep first-time offenders out of the criminal justice system, Painter-Davis says it is possible that they can sometimes do the opposite. He gives the hypothetical example of a child breaking a window: “If there is a rerouting program, that program could actually get you into the system,” says Painter-Davis.
Before there were multiple diversion options, for example, a child who broke a window might simply have received a stern lecture from a judge before their case was dismissed, Painter-Davis says. But “if there is a rerouting program, that program could actually get you into the system,” says Painter-Davis. It gives courts the ability to bring low-level criminals into the justice system.
It may be too early to tell how well the redirect is working in New Mexico
Of course, there are potential advantages and disadvantages associated with the redirect. But put simply, there isn’t enough data to know how well these programs work in New Mexico, says Painter-Davis.
“Criminal justice is very complicated. It is, in a word, a “polluted” area. Maintaining public safety is not easy and there are so many unknowns. But a great way for the public and the criminal justice system to move forward together is to have a greater shared understanding of what is going on, ”he says. “A strong reliance on punitive measures for a wide range of individual perpetrators doesn’t really work. It’s not cost-effective and doesn’t make the community much safer. “
“That is not to say, ‘[lets] Don’t hold people accountable, just that there are better strategies, ”he adds. “Perhaps jail time or detention for repeat offenders is appropriate in many cases, but not in many other cases. And there are other solutions that we can bring to the table. “
Painter-Davis is currently helping set up a diversion program for the 1st Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Santa Fe. He says it will focus on those 18-25 years old.
“We’re trying to sort out two things before we get into that. First, let’s try to get a good picture of the landscape of diversion practices across the country, ”he says. “Second, we’re really trying to have a data system that we can use to investigate the diversion more effectively.”
Eventually, the program and the data it collects will give a better picture of how well the redirect is working in New Mexico, says Painter-Davis.