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Controversial criminal justice system review shelved

Wayne Johnson

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When then-state auditor Wayne Johnson announced 19 months ago he was launching a “ground-breaking” audit of the criminal justice system, stakeholders worried it would be a waste of time – and money.

It appears they were right.

Calling it “superfluous” and saying it failed to consider the complexity of the criminal justice system, State Auditor Brian Colón told seven agencies last month that he is not moving ahead with the controversial review launched by his predecessor in May 2018.

“Having reviewed everything that was associated with this, and in particular in light of what I saw had been done by the LFC, I just could not in good conscience spend an additional dollar on these audits,” Colón said in an interview last Monday.

At the time, Johnson, who was seeking reelection, said he was undertaking the special audit in hopes of identifying “problems that cause the system to fail New Mexicans and place our families at risk of violent crime.”

State Auditor Brian Colón

He tapped seven agencies, and told them to hire an independent public accountant that would review their processes and policies in search of “any gaps in the shared system.” When that was complete, he said, his own office would review the reports in order to conduct a systemwide analysis.

Critics almost immediately termed the audit redundant and ill-informed.

The results – posted last month to the Office of the State Auditor’s website – confirm for the most part that those critics were correct.

In a transparency report, Colón’s office writes that “in light of the contemporaneous evaluation of the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice System by the (Legislative Finance Committee) – which was inclusive of the seven agencies subject to the System Review – the System Review was duplicative and the designation was not made in the best interests of the OSA’s (Office of the State Auditor’s) mission to address financial fraud, waste, and abuse.”

That 106-page LFC report was compiled by a nonpartisan team of evaluators, and it was released eight weeks after Johnson made his announcement.

The state auditor’s review, on the other hand, appears to have tasked accountants with not only learning the ins and outs of an incredibly complex system, but also identifying ways to fix the systemic, long-standing problems that plague it.

Colón points out that each of these agencies comes under audit every year; this special systems audit came in addition to that regular audit.

As one accountant wrote in a letter to the editor urging the auditor to rethink his plan: “how is someone who is trained in applying accounting standards and financial controls supposed to determine if cases are being dismissed as a result of a proper judicial process? It would be akin to the auditor at a hospital determining if the doctors were properly performing open heart surgery.”

Only five of the seven agencies ever completed the audits. The Law Offices of the Public Defender and Albuquerque Police Department never did.

The remaining five – Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, Metropolitan Detention Center, 2nd Judicial District Court, District Attorney’s Office and Metropolitan Court – spent a combined $90,000 on the audits.

Here’s a limited sample of the observations auditors provided:

• Based on interviews with personnel at Bernalillo County, we believe that the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council would be a helpful forum to discuss how all seven entities can better share information and improve processes, as all the entities included in this audit participate in this council.

• We … noted proactive use of information technology and a customer-focused culture (at Metropolitan Court) that, while disciplined, is open to our procedures and recommendations.

• It appears there are different perspectives between the DA and the 2nd Judicial District Court over the use of grand juries contrasted to the preliminary examination to initiate the process of felony prosecutions.

In his transparency report, Colón suggests that Johnson’s audit be shelved and that the courts, DA and other criminal justice agencies instead follow the LFC report’s road map, which was also funded by taxpayers.

District Court officials said they were pleased that the auditor decided not to proceed with the audit.

“Since the Legislative Finance Committee had already conducted a thorough examination of the criminal justice system in Bernalillo County, we felt this audit was an unnecessary, duplicative exercise,” Chief Judge Stan Whitaker said in a statement.

The court hired a firm to conduct the review despite being a vocal critic of the plan from the beginning.

On the day the plan was announced, a court spokesman said in a statement that the court would work cooperatively with the OSA, but that the court also hoped the process could “clear up the Auditor’s apparent misunderstanding of the criminal justice system, which is reflected in his use of statistics and scenarios we do not believe have a basis in fact.”

In an interview earlier this month, Johnson stood by his decision to launch the review, saying he used a different approach than the LFC and that his review was more impartial. He said the LFC had its own agenda, but accountants were in a position to offer a true outsider’s view at a time when, he felt, the public had lost trust in the system.

But even Johnson acknowledged that, unfinished, the audit may be of little value, though he said he hopes the individual reviews were of some use to the agencies.

“With the state of crime in Albuquerque … I don’t think having another set of eyes on it was ever a bad idea,” Johnson said. “If … everybody had been effective and people in Albuquerque were safe, then I might have a different opinion. But right now, we’re in a position where people in Albuquerque don’t feel safe and are not safe.”

Colón wouldn’t call the whole exercise a waste, saying that any review is bound to have some marginal value.

“Look, I think there’s always value in making inquiries and having people continuously try to identify paths for efficiency and appropriate uses for taxpayer dollars,” Colon said. “There’s always some value in that, the question is how much value?”

Johnson, who now works as the Torrance County manager, said he hasn’t had a chance to read the reviews yet.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Katy at 823-3843, kbarnitz@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @katybarnitz.

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