The justice system in Bernalillo County is broken. Study after study, committee after committee, criminals continue to rule our streets as we increasingly cower in our own homes.
The state Auditor’s Office recently announced a ground-breaking and independent approach to identifying gaps in our criminal justice system. This performance audit is focused in Albuquerque, the epicenter of New Mexico’s sweeping crime problem. The ultimate goal is one shared by just about everybody in our community: plug the holes in our criminal justice system so families feel safe in their own homes.
So, it’s puzzling that an isolated portion of our criminal justice system is pushing back so hard against an independent and holistic review to identify the gaps that place our communities at risk.
The Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Review Committee and the more recent committee formed by the Legislature and chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Ed Chavez, and other studies, have and are doing important work. Our efforts will not be duplicative of those already underway, but rather will complement that work and build upon it.
The nature of the criminal justice system itself is one of conflict and argument, where a disinterested party – a judge – presides over it all. But in this case, the judiciary is not a disinterested party – which is where we come in.
Previously commissioned studies and committees tended to reflect the objectives of the entities that paid for or formed them. And since the participants are a part of that system, the only “solutions” they generally agree on come down to more people and more money. Simply put, their work lacks an independent perspective by trained professionals with absolutely no stake in the system itself.
The city and county have raised taxes. They’ve created behavioral health programming, new re-entry services, specialty courts and pre-trial services, and doled out raises to attract more police officers. But what they haven’t done is address the systemic problems that fail to get dangerous repeat offenders off the streets and behind bars where they can’t do further harm.
Before I announced this performance audit, I met with leaders from each piece of the system. Predictably, no one was thrilled with the prospect of being audited, but law enforcement, the district attorney and Metro Court are open to this new approach. The Public Defender’s Office expressed minor concerns, but the only real push back came from District Court, asserting poverty and what they call “incessant reviews.”
I understand that audits have a financial cost and have pledged to build upon information already gathered in other reviews whenever possible. But the truth is, the state auditor is the only official in New Mexico with the constitutional and statutory authority to provide a truly independent review of the performance of our criminal justice system.
I’m sure it’s uncomfortable for judges to be judged, but they live in their own silo just like each of the other agencies who work in this publicly funded system. And so far, the system has failed in its attempts to fix itself.
There is general agreement by the public and stakeholders that the judicial system in Bernalillo County is broken. There are multiple indicators of performance and systems breakdowns.
It is incumbent upon me as state auditor to undertake this project and identify the systemic problems that impede justice and are responsible for making us feel like New Mexico’s largest city is one of the more dangerous places to live in the country. I will bring a team of independent, licensed and trained auditors who specialize in performance audits and will look at the entire system objectively.
It’s not a question of waiting – we have dealt with this issue unsuccessfully for years. It’s a question of why we didn’t perform this analysis sooner? An isolated few say we “can’t afford” such a review. I strongly believe we can’t afford to wait any longer. The cost of a broken system is far too high and is paid for with the safety and security of our families.
Wayne Johnson previously served as a Bernalillo County commissioner and is running for re-election as state auditor.