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Metro Court judges take on additional hearings

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Metropolitan Court judges hope taking on an additional set of hearings will mean more cases are routed through specialty court programs that help some defendants address issues that may be at the heart of their criminal behavior through counseling and treatment.

Metropolitan Court Chief Judge Edward Benavidez said that the court began on Monday holding preliminary examination hearings. Previously, in Bernalillo County, those hearings had been handled in District Court only.

At those hearings, a judge evaluates witness testimony and evidence in a felony case to determine whether there is probable cause to believe the defendant has committed a crime. If probable cause is found, the case is moved to District Court. Benavidez said judges will schedule preliminary hearings during a defendant’s first appearance in court.

Taking on preliminary hearings will increase the workload for judges at the state’s busiest court, which processed more than 7,000 felony cases in fiscal year 2017. Metropolitan Court officials said the “move was made in an effort to provide an additional avenue for advancing felony cases in Bernalillo County.”

Sidney Hill, spokesman for District Court, said judges there will continue to hold preliminary hearings and would work with Metro Court and prosecutors to “make adjustments as necessary moving forward.” But he said it’s still too soon to know what effects the change might have.

Benavidez said the change means a greater number of eligible defendants may be able to participate in Metro Court’s 11 specialty programs. Those programs, the court says, use counseling, treatment and supervision, as an alternative to incarceration, in order to rehabilitate a defendant.

“We have tremendous success in rehabilitating individuals,” Benavidez said. “You have to address the underlying cause.”

The court only expects a modest rise in participation in its specialty court programs, Benavidez said, but he believes treatment is key to curbing Albuquerque’s crime problem. Successful program participants, he said, are much less likely to re-offend.

“There’s a big portion of this criminal population that can be targeted and treated and have some really great results,” Benavidez said.

He said good candidates for such programs are defendants with substance abuse issues facing low-level drug possession or property crime charges.

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