NM's violent crime up, arrests down - Albuquerque Journal

NM’s violent crime up, arrests down

New Mexico State Police officers investigate after a SWAT standoff ended with an Albuquerque police officer fatally shooting a domestic violence suspect in Moriarty in September. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

From Cuba to Clovis, violent crime has surged in at least two dozen New Mexico communities, while fewer and fewer cases statewide are being solved by arrest.

Law enforcement agencies are struggling to keep up. And in some places, property crimes aren’t being prosecuted because there aren’t enough officers to investigate them.

Amid the spike in violent crime, the number of offenders sent to New Mexico state prisons on new charges has been dropping, with prison population down some 35% since 2015.

The recent public safety assessments from a key legislative committee, coupled with other state reports and Journal interviews, provide new evidence of what many New Mexicans might already suspect.

“In short, we have identified an ongoing accountability gap where the criminal justice system has not kept pace with the level of crime,” said Jon Courtney, deputy director of the Legislative Finance Committee. As a result, punishment has grown less certain as crime has increased, the LFC says.

With less than three weeks left in the current 30-day legislative session, state lawmakers are under the gun to provide some relief.

But there’s no consensus as to how to lower crime rates in the state.

Controversial proposed changes in pretrial detention rules have monopolized the legislative debate so far.

But several other bills target specific crimes, such as eliminating the statute of limitations for second-degree murder and increasing the penalty. Another measure would create more severe penalties for certain crimes involving firearms.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also wants to devote $100 million to hire an additional 1,000 law enforcement officers in the state.

Increasing law enforcement ranks, with a goal of proactive policing, could provide the certainty of arrest that research shows is a significant deterrent to crime, the LFC concluded.

It’s unclear what role lawmakers could play regarding other LFC recommendations.

“Improving policing and increasing cooperation and coordination among criminal justice partners could help increase the certainty of punishment for the most violent offenses and provide a stronger deterrent to serious crime,” an LFC report states.


Help wanted

Research suggests that more police and sheriff’s officers deployed “in a way that creates the perception the risk of arrest is high” would help reduce crime. But the LFC found that New Mexico has struggled to hire enough law enforcement officers.

Two of the largest agencies, Albuquerque Police Department and New Mexico State Police, continue to lose officers and haven’t been able to catch up despite aggressive recruiting efforts.

At the APD, spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the agency as of Wednesday had 900 sworn officers. That is some 39 fewer than last summer and far short of APD’s current authorized strength of 1,100. A class of 13 cadets will graduate from Central New Mexico Community College next week.

To help the APD combat crime last summer, Lujan Grisham temporarily dispatched New Mexico State Police officers to the city to make arrests. But the State Police last week were down to 630 sworn officers, 92 officers short of its authorized strength of 722 officers, a spokesman said.

Nationally, law enforcement agencies employed an average of 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents, while New Mexico law enforcement agencies employed an average of 2.2 officers per 1,000 at the beginning of last year, according to the LFC.

To reach the national level, the state would need to add 408 more officers – “more than it has employed in any point in recent history,” the LFC reported.

Dianna Luce, president of the New Mexico District Attorney Association, said in “some parts of the state they’ve lost law enforcement … so in some places property crimes are really not being handled and reported the way we used to see them.

“They may send out an officer to do a report, but there may not be a case brought to the DA’s office (for prosecution) on certain property crimes because they have to focus on violent crime,” she said.

Some smaller law enforcement agencies, Luce added, “are not responding to property crimes at all.”



Violence climbs

While lawmakers, prosecutors and public defenders debate the best ways to combat crime, statistics show that violent crime in many of areas of New Mexico has risen far faster than elsewhere in the United States in recent years.

Since 1992, New Mexico’s violent crime rate has remained at least 19% above the national average and “for the past three years it has been more than twice the national rate,” the LFC reports.

The primary driver of New Mexico’s violent crime rate is Albuquerque, which saw a record number of homicides last year at 117 and a 167% rise between 2014 and 2020.

But from 2016 to 2020, the LFC reports, Albuquerque joined at least 19 small- to medium-sized cities and towns in seeing an increase in the rate of violent crime. In many of those communities, violent crime rates exceeded the national average. Some of the communities with the highest spikes included Gallup, Farmington, Española, and in the southeast, Roswell, Clovis and Portales.

“Violent crime is up and we’re not all sure what’s driving that,” said Luce, who is the district attorney for the 5th Judicial District, which covers Chaves, Eddy and Lea counties. “Obviously, you all are seeing it in Albuquerque but we’re seeing that around the state. I believe we got up to 34 homicides for my district (in 2021), and if you think about the population, that’s really high and it’s pretty evenly spread.”

The northern New Mexico village of Cuba, with a population of about 700 people, saw a 300% spike in violent crime between 2016 and 2020, according to research conducted by the LFC.

“We’ve had a major increase in crime and the arrest rate here compared to the population is just insane,” said Cuba Police Chief Manuel Romero. “It’s violent crime, but there’s always a correlation with substance abuse.”

The LFC cited drug use, poverty and sustained unemployment as the root causes of criminal behavior, and added that “New Mexico’s struggles in these areas are likely responsible for these troubling trends.”

Arrests fall

As violent crime has risen, the rate of cases cleared by arrest has dropped dramatically. And that began before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The LFC reported the statewide clearance rate for violent crimes went from slightly less than 50% statewide in 2011 to just above 30% in 2020.

In Albuquerque, the LFC reported declining clearance rates for both violent and property crimes since 2010, “meaning offenders are less likely to be apprehended than a decade ago.”

Nationwide, according to the nonprofit criminal justice website, the Marshall Project, clearance rates for all violent crimes have suffered. The national violent crime clearance rate declined to 50% last year compared to slightly more than 70% in the early 1980s.

So too have prison admissions fallen in New Mexico, the LFC noted.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic initially slowed prosecutions in state courts and prompted early releases of some inmates, the number of admissions to state prisons began to fall in mid-2018, according to the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.

And by fiscal year 2021, which ended June 30, the average prison population in New Mexico fell to its lowest level in over a decade. As a result, the state Corrections Department had an average of almost 1,600 beds unoccupied in FY21, according to state records.

A stark drop was noted in Bernalillo County, which was responsible for 37% of the state’s total prison admissions in fiscal year 2015 to 22% in fiscal 2020, the LFC reports.

The District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque blames district court rules and practices for creating a bottleneck that has led to reduced filings of felony criminal cases in state District Court.

The DA’s office also points out that since 2020, more than 500 felony cases, such as those involving firearms, drug trafficking or carjackings, have been sent to federal court for prosecution. In those cases, convicted offenders often receive stiffer sentences and are sent to federal prison.

Statewide, Luce says the decision to send a convicted felon to state prison is often a “sentencing issue that most district attorneys are not going to be able to control. A lot of sentencing is discretionary, so it’s up to the judge.”

The state sentencing commission forecasts a flat prison admission rate in the future, noting “ongoing advocacy around criminal justice reform, sentencing changes and expansion of diversionary programs” that keep people out of prison.

The New Mexico Public Defender’s Office said it’s difficult to pin down the actual reason for fewer prisoners.

“It is neither good nor bad. At the moment it is just one data point among many,” Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said in a statement.

Baur told the Journal that a lower number of admissions could be good if it correlated to increased treatment and diversion programs or early releases based on successful rehabilitation.

Eric Harrison, state Corrections Department spokesman, told the Journal that state prison capacity was at 72% last week, but he said there’s an upside to the population drop because of a current shortage of corrections staff.

For instance, at the medium-security Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa, “we transferred half that population out” and shut down one of two housing units. “It’s because our population was low that we were able to do that,”he said.

This legislative session, the Public Defender’s Office supports measures that would increase money for crime prevention programs, and “any appropriations going directly to substance abuse treatment and behavioral health,” said agency spokeswoman Maggie Shepard.

In addition, “We would support funding more effective pretrial supervision, including better GPS monitoring, but haven’t seen any bills doing that.”

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