Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Nonpartisan legislative analysts examining Albuquerque’s crime wave found “critical gaps” in all three pillars of the criminal justice system – law enforcement, the courts and jails, according to a landmark 100-page report issued Thursday.
But they also pointed to reasons for optimism – including increased cooperation among public agencies, more traffic stops initiated by police and a new re-entry center to help inmates released from the jail. Economic conditions are also improving.
Add it all up, and 2018 may be the first time in eight years that Albuquerque’s crime rate falls, analysts working for the Legislative Finance Committee told lawmakers Thursday.
The criminal justice agencies in Albuquerque “still probably don’t look like a model system, yet they’re moving in that direction,” said Jon Courtney, the LFC’s program evaluation manager.
The report was part of a three-hour presentation as lawmakers asked questions about what caused the spike in crime that pushed Albuquerque’s crime rate to among the worst in the nation. They also discussed recommendations for how to build on optimism that 2018 will break the streak of rising crime.
Courtney gently pushed back on criticism that the 2010-17 spike in crime was caused by New Mexico’s new rules on bail, a Supreme Court order imposing deadlines for handling criminal cases or the new “risk assessment tool” used by courts to determine which defendants should be released while they await trial.
The increase in crime started before many of those changes happened, the report said. Nonetheless, Courtney urged lawmakers to avoid drawing conclusions until more research is done.
“With a lot of those reforms,” Courtney told lawmakers, “I don’t know that we’ll find evidence that they caused the crime increases. I think we may find evidence that they were helping.”
Instead, he said, deteriorating social conditions and other flaws in the criminal justice system – from law enforcement to the legal system and jails and prisons – coincided with the crime wave. The report largely examined an eight-year period ending in 2017.
Arrests and convictions were down, for example, while crime increased. In 2011, near the beginning of the crime wave, Albuquerque endured worsening poverty, homelessness and drug use, the analysts said, based on data they reviewed.
“As social conditions deteriorated, the criminal justice system held fewer and fewer people accountable while crimes continued to increase,” the LFC report said.
In fact, from 2010 to 2017, “the Albuquerque Police Department, the judicial system, and the Metropolitan Detention Center all suffered from problematic – and in some cases unconstitutional – practices,” the report said.
The analysts said the U.S. Department of Justice settlement with APD – requiring a series of reforms aimed at ending a pattern of violating people’s rights – may have contributed to part of the crime increase.
In cities across the country that have entered similar agreements, crime has increased for a year or two before returning to typical levels, the report said. Albuquerque is experiencing a similar pattern, the legislative analysts said. It isn’t clear whether changes in police tactics, increased reporting of crime or other factors drive the change, they said.
In any case, despite the reasons for optimism, the LFC review found “a system that suffers from critical gaps between reality and the best practices of law enforcement, jurisprudence, and incarceration.”
The report recommends establishing statewide requirements for how defendants are handled before trial and removing legal barriers that prevent criminal justice agencies from sharing data with one another.
Bernalillo County should also continue efforts at connecting inmates leaving jail with services, the report said. Until recently, inmates were sometimes released late at night in the heart of Downtown.
Albuquerque police, meanwhile, should make better use of their Real Time Crime Center to analyze trends and engage in proactive policing strategies.
The number of people graduating from speciality courts – such as drug courts aimed at reducing recidivism among people struggling with addiction – has fallen, a trend the state should try to reverse, the analysts said.
But there must also be oversight to ensure the speciality courts adhere to “best practices” that ensure they remain effective.
Much of the report focused on the link between broader social problems and crime rates.
A census tract covering the Downtown area – the highest-crime area in the state, analysts said – “also saw the largest increase in families living in poverty,” the report said.
“If we don’t have decent-paying jobs, we’re going to be inviting more social problems,” Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said. “It seems to me that the first priority, quite frankly, needs to be jobs.”
As for optimism, the report said the crime rate has been decreasing since November.
In fact, Albuquerque’s June crime rate was the lowest monthly rate in two years.