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Debate centers on funding state’s biggest DA office

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – When it comes to hiring more prosecutors to keep up with Albuquerque’s soaring crime rates, state lawmakers are trying to figure out what price is right.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez of the 2nd Judicial District, which covers Bernalillo County, is seeking a nearly 30 percent budget hike in the coming year – a request endorsed by Gov. Susana Martinez – but a bipartisan legislative panel has recommended a much more modest increase.

At Roundhouse committee hearings this week, Torrez has not backed down.

He described crime in New Mexico’s largest city as a “crisis situation,” adding that while Bernalillo County has about half the state’s violent crime, local prosecutors only get 26 percent of the state dollars dedicated to fighting it.

“To put it very plainly, we need the Legislature to help and do what it can to … address the crime that is plaguing our community,” Torrez said during a meeting of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

He also said the request for an additional $5.4 million – from $18.2 million to $23.6 million – would allow his office to hire 20 more attorneys who, combined, could handle roughly 1,600 felony cases.

But some lawmakers from outside the Albuquerque area have questioned the fairness of giving a much larger budget boost to Torrez’s office than to other prosecutors statewide.

“Every comment that was made about Albuquerque could be made about any other city,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the House budget panel.

And Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, questioned whether Torrez was hiring prosecutors away from other jurisdictions at higher pay, an allegation Torrez’s office didn’t dispute.

 Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, uses a graphic about Albuquerque's crime rate during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, uses a graphic about Albuquerque’s crime rate during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The House committee voted this week to endorse the smaller budget increase – about $900,000 instead of $5.4 million – although Lundstrom said there will be more scrutiny before a final decision. Funding for prosecutors is included in the annual budget bill, which could be voted on in the House next week.

With the state’s revenue outlook brightening after a lengthy budget downturn, the issue is shaping up as one of the more heated debates of this year’s 30-day legislative session.

It could also cross party lines, with most Albuquerque lawmakers apparently supportive of the larger budget request.

In addition to the base budget hike, Torrez has also asked for one-time state funding, including $600,000 to prosecute three people charged with killing 10-year old Victoria Martens in 2016.

“I don’t blame you for requesting this budget because I think we’ve underfunded district attorneys, public defenders and the judiciary for a long time,” Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, told Torrez earlier this week.

Albuquerque’s crime rate has gone up since 2010, and the city’s 75 reported homicides last year were the highest in recent history. Also, among the nation’s 30 largest cities, Albuquerque was tops percentage-wise in crime in 2016, according to federal data.

At the state level, the 2nd Judicial District accounted for about 48 percent of New Mexico’s violent crime, 51 percent of property crime and 70 percent of auto thefts in 2016, according to Torrez. His office also says funding for the local DA’s Office has not kept up in the past with population growth and escalating crime.

However, other New Mexico cities may actually have more crime per capita. Española, Gallup, Taos and Belen all recently posted higher crime rates per 1,000 people than Albuquerque, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.

Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, asked Torrez about whether more money for prosecutors would make a difference in Albuquerque, given a decrease in the number of police officers from about 1,100 several years ago to about 830 now.

“It just seems intuitive to me that crime might go up when there’s less police officers on the beat,” Townsend said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, called the budget request “off the charts” but necessary.

“As Albuquerque goes, the state goes,” Maestas said, referring to the state’s reputation.