District Attorney Raúl Torrez said Thursday that focusing prosecutions on defendants with long criminal histories is one of several reasons that Albuquerque – during the latter part of 2017 and the first part of 2018 – saw a sustained decrease in crime for the first time in eight years.
“This is a significant, significant milestone for this community,” Torrez said during a luncheon put on by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
There were a total of more than 4,000 crimes reported in August 2017, and that number dropped to about 3,000 cases in July 2018, according to statistics from the DA’s Office.
It’s been widely publicized that when Torrez took office in January 2017 he inherited 8,000 felony cases that had been referred to his office but never prosecuted. That, in part, was because new court rules put in place in 2015 set strict deadlines for criminal cases once they were launched and so many cases instead lingered for fear of a dismissal.
Since then, Torrez said, his office has combed through those cases and found that about 10 percent of them were committed by the same 111 people. Prosecutors have since filed 518 felony cases against those individuals.
Of those cases, 76 percent have been sentenced or are pending sentencing and 24 percent of those cases are still being prosecuted. He said that effort was an example of how targeting defendants with long criminal histories has helped start a reduction of crime in the city.
“We had to come through and develop a triage system which basically identified the most highest risk, most impactful criminal defendants inside the backlog,” he said.
Del Esparza of Esparza Advertising, who is part of the chamber’s Public Safety Bold Issues Group, called Torrez an “agent of change” and said he’s optimistic about the recent crime trend. The chamber has made addressing crime in Albuquerque one of its priorities.
Homicides were up 18 percent in the first half of 2018 compared with 2017. But other crime was down. Albuquerque city officials have said that through the first six months of 2018, automobile burglary and robberies were down 31 percent compared to the first half of 2017, and auto theft and commercial burglaries were down 16 percent compared to the same time period.
That’s a sharp turnaround from previous years, when Albuquerque saw a significant increase in crime from 2014 to 2016. Both violent and property crimes increased 26 percent during that period and homicides were up 102 percent.
Torrez at the luncheon also described other changes that have been made to the District Attorney’s Office in the last year and a half or so:
• The office has created a Crime Strategies Unit, which uses computer algorithms and other techniques to find crime trends that prosecutors may not catch. Those trends could be that certain defendants have been arrested driving the same car or been living at the same address or have used the same gun. That can lead law enforcement to build bigger cases against larger groups of people.
• The office has continued to send more cases to federal prosecutors. There have been 74 cases originating in state court prosecuted in federal court, and all the cases have led to convictions. Some of those suspects had been arrested on state charges multiple times but were ultimately released for a variety of reasons.
• Prosecutors have decreased the amount of time it takes to start a case in district court once it has been referred to them by law enforcement. Torrez said in recent months prosecutors have started cases in state district court, usually through a grand jury or a preliminary hearing, in fewer than 20 days once they are referred. In 2015 and 2016, it would take longer than 100 days on average, which helped create the “astronomical and historical” backlog of cases, he said.
Torrez said that was important because two strong deterrents to crime is when suspects know there will be punishment and the speed with which the case is handled.
A key to the changes in the DA’s office is an increased budget approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor earlier this year.
When asked what resources he would need to continue to lower the city’s crime rate, Torrez said the city’s crime problem is also the result of more New Mexican children growing up with adverse childhood experience, such as poverty, parental incarceration or abuse. He is co-chair of Mission: Families, a United Way of Central New Mexico initiative intended to develop programs that target families faced with problems such as addiction, violence and the incarceration of a parent.
“The public safety crisis we’re living through is something that was built into the system a generation ago with kids who suffered tremendous trauma,” he said. “The reality is if you really want to build a safe community, (reducing adverse childhood experiences) is where you need to focus.”
The District Attorney’s Office’s victim advocates and retiring Metropolitan Detention Center Greg Rees were also recognized during the luncheon.