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DA seeks budget hike amid ABQ crime spike

District Attorney Raul Torrez (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal file)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Bernalillo County is home to about half the crime in New Mexico, but local prosecutors say they get only 27 percent of the state money dedicated to fighting it.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez, the state’s top prosecutor in Albuquerque, delivered that pitch on Wednesday to a bipartisan panel of legislators studying how to respond to New Mexico’s escalating crime rate.

Torrez – a Democrat who leads an office of 97 attorneys in the 2nd Judicial District, covering Albuquerque and Bernalillo County – said the violent and property crime rates climbed sharply in the Albuquerque area between 2014 and 2016. The spike is at odds with both the national trend and what’s happening elsewhere in the state.

Altogether, he said, about half of New Mexico’s crime happens in his district, though his office receives only about 27 percent of the money allocated for district attorneys throughout the state.

“It’s fairly obvious we’re not matching the resources to the problem,” Torrez said during an all-day meeting of the Criminal Reform Subcommittee, a bipartisan group expected to make recommendations to the full Legislature.

But lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, pushed back a little on Torrez’s request for about $6 million in extra annual funding for his office, an increase of about 33 percent from its current budget of roughly $18 million.

Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, said the budget allocation appears to roughly match the percentage of people who live in Bernalillo County rather than the rest of the state.

“The 2nd Judicial District seems to be getting its fair share right now as compared to a lot of the rural areas,” said Baca, whose district is based mostly in Valencia County, south of Albuquerque.

Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said that increasing the budget for Torrez’s office is more complicated than it sounds, even if the extra money is justified. There might have to be corresponding budget increases to help public defenders, judges and court staff – to keep the criminal-justice system balanced.

“That’s something we have to consider,” McSorley said.

New Mexico faces an incredibly tight budget next year. A recent financial forecast estimated that the state would have just enough revenue next year to cover current spending levels, with perhaps just $25 million to spare out of a $6.1 billion budget.

And with new money expected to be limited, a key legislative budget committee has told most state agencies to brace for flat funding levels in the coming year.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor herself, and state lawmakers will try to craft a new budget in the legislative session that begins in January. The new spending plan would go into effect July 1.

The tight budget comes as Albuquerque’s rising crime rate is seizing public attention. It’s been a focus in Albuquerque’s mayoral race, and an incredible 99 percent of city voters said crime is a serious problem, according to a scientific Journal Poll earlier this month.

In 2016, the 2nd Judicial District accounted for about 48 percent of New Mexico’s violent crime, 50 percent of its homicides, 51 percent of its property crime and 70 percent of auto thefts, according to Torrez, who took office at the beginning of 2017.