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Prosecutor: Caseload ‘out of control’

SANTA FE – Prosecutors and public defenders are requesting budget increases approaching 20 percent – or roughly $23 million – as they try to recruit and retain qualified attorneys, especially in rural parts of New Mexico.

In a legislative hearing Thursday, John Sugg, the district attorney for Lincoln and Otero counties, said it’s difficult to hire attorneys to work in Carrizozo, the county seat in Lincoln, with fewer than 1,000 residents. The recruits take a look at the four-way stop and the Allsup’s, he said, and they decide they’d rather work in a bigger city.

“This attorney caseload is out of control,” Sugg told the Legislative Finance Committee. “I’m losing them left and right.”

He said the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office handles more cases per attorney than any other in the state.

Sugg was one of about a dozen prosecutors, public defenders and others who made presentations to lawmakers this week seeking more money in the budget that will be crafted in the next legislative session.

An oil boom in southeastern New Mexico is sharply increasing state revenue. In August, state economists projected about $1.2 billion in “new” money next year, or revenue beyond this year’s spending levels.

Injecting more money into the judicial system has been a battleground in recent sessions. Just last year, the district attorney in Bernalillo County, Raúl Torrez, secured an extra $4.3 million to help hire more prosecutors and issue pay raises – part of an effort to address high crime in the Albuquerque area.

Torrez told lawmakers Thursday that the infusion has made a difference. Cases are moving through the court system more quickly, he said, and crime has been going down.

“We are making substantial progress,” Torrez said, but “we obviously have a long way to go because we started off in a bad position.”

This year, he’s seeking an additional $1.8 million beyond the $4.3 million from last year to convert some of the staff positions authorized for his office into higher-paid attorneys and senior investigators.

All together, New Mexico’s district attorneys are seeking an average increase of 17 percent from the state’s basic operating budget, or about $13 million more than they will receive this year, according to legislative analysts. The new budget year begins July 1.

The Public Defender Department, in turn, is seeking an increase of nearly 20 percent, or about $10 million more. The department wants to hire more attorneys and ensure people in rural parts of the state get the same legal defense as defendants in bigger cities, officials said.

Some of the money would go toward a unit to handle complex cases in rural communities.

“That’s because we can’t get senior lawyers into rural parts of the state,” said Hugh Dangler, a member of the Public Defender Commission.

Tom Clear, chairman of the Public Defender Commission, said some staff members are working unsustainable amounts of times on behalf of clients – spending their days in court and much of their nights working from home. The commission is asking for enough money to hire 37 more attorneys.

“We have got to protect the constitutional rights of our clients,” Clear told legislators.

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