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Editorial: Pushing dangerous defendants to U.S. court = safer streets

Virgal Malott of Albuquerque will spend the next 15 or so years in federal prison for his conviction last year on charges of armed robbery of a commercial business, carjacking and discharge of a firearm.

Notorious armed robber Paul Salas is serving a sentence of 24 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to interfering with interstate commerce, using a firearm during a crime of violence and failing to register as a sex offender.

After a state district court judge initially refused to hold Salas pending trial – this for a defendant accused of nearly 50 armed robberies of Albuquerque stores and restaurants over a seven-month period – the case was moved to U.S. District Court, where a magistrate judge ordered him held in custody. Salas didn’t get a chance to go back on the street before pleading guilty and heading to federal prison.

Malott and Salas are just two of several hundred dangerous defendants who have been prosecuted in federal court rather than the state system in recent years as state and federal prosecutors have worked together to take hardcore felons off the streets.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez has made using the federal system a priority when violent crime violates both state and federal laws.

It’s a smart move made possible by the cooperation of the office of U.S. Attorney John C. Anderson. His predecessor, Damon Martinez, also was committed to taking on hard-core felons under the “Worst of the Worst” program used to prosecute Malott, who initially was arrested by APD in 2015 on outstanding state felony warrants.

Torrez now dedicates three prosecutors from his office to working the cases headed for the federal system. According to newly released data, some 201 state criminal cases, mostly involving guns or violent offenses, have been preliminarily adopted for federal prosecution over the past two years.

The federal system has tougher sentences, and offenders are much more likely to be held in custody pending trial. The newly released data show 73 defendants initially appeared before state judges on pretrial detention motions and subsequently before federal judges when their cases were accepted for federal prosecution. The state judges opted to release slightly more than half of those defendants. When their cases were moved to federal court, only 7% were allowed pretrial release.

Torrez, who has had a running battle with state judges over pretrial detention under the state’s relatively new Constitutional amendment allowing defendants to be detained pending trial if they are deemed dangerous and no conditions of release will ensure safety, says the difference between a 93% detention rate in federal court versus 49% in state court “should get people’s attention.”

Meanwhile, Torrez says he plans to ask the Legislature for more funding to ramp up the federal prosecution program because federal court is “the most reliable place to remove the most dangerous people from the streets of Albuquerque.”

Federal prosecutors have plenty of work to do with defendants arrested by the FBI, Homeland Security, Alcohol Firearms and Tobacco and other government agencies. But Anderson says there has been no pushback from federal lawyers on his staff – or defense attorneys – over moving so many cases to federal court.

“They understand why we’re doing it,” he said, “and they live here just as we do and recognize the reality that our violent crime rates are too high.”

What can the Legislature do? Two things come to mind: Provide funding crucial to the DA’s Office to make this place safer by using the federal system to the extent possible, and guidance to state judges on pretrial detention that requires defendants in certain crimes to show they are not a danger if released.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.