The recent election of 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez to the state attorney general’s post has provided the governor with the opportunity to appoint a district attorney to serve the remaining two years of Torrez’s term.
Ten candidates have submitted applications to the governor, including three deputy DAs from the current DA’s staff. A group of 49 trial attorneys from the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office signed a letter in November asking the governor to appoint one of these deputy DAs. The letter states: “It will be imperative to the success of this office and therefore the safety and welfare of our community to have a District Attorney that can hit the ground running.”
As a criminal defense attorney practicing in Bernalillo County for over 10 years, I know that the appointment of a new DA will have a deep impact in our community. Rather than prioritizing continuity, the governor should seek to appoint a DA who will take meaningful steps to reduce the mass incarceration of people from our community.
While crime consistently polls as a top concern for residents of Bernalillo County, mass incarceration has proven an ineffective strategy for reducing crime. According to The Sentencing Project (https://www.sentencingproject.org/research), there are currently approximately 2 million people incarcerated in our country’s jails and prisons, which represents a 500% increase over the past 40 years. As NYU Law Professor Bryan Stevenson writes in “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” “Incarceration became the answer to everything – health care problems like drug addiction, poverty that had led someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, even immigration issues generated responses from legislators that involved sending people to prison.” This dramatic increase in incarceration has hit poor and minority communities especially hard, but has not correlated with a decrease in crime.
A district attorney who is committed to reducing incarceration could immediately implement the following policies:
1. Refrain from imposing habitual offender enhancements. These enhancements can dramatically increase the sentences for individuals with multiple prior convictions for low-level substance abuse or property crime related offenses.
2. Expand the Pre-Prosecution Diversion (PPD) program to allow most defendants charged with 3rd- or 4th-degree felonies to have their charges adjudicated without a conviction after a period of compliance, treatment, and, in some cases, restitution to the victims.
3. Dismiss all pending non-violent drug offenses, and refuse to prosecute these cases in the future. Incarceration of non-violent people with substance abuse issues has not blunted the opioid epidemic, and the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to refuse to prosecute these cases would free up significant law enforcement resources to be better utilized elsewhere.
Our county’s addiction to mass incarceration is unnecessary and destructive, especially to minority communities. Rather than staying the course, the governor should appoint a DA who is serious about reducing incarceration, regardless of whether that person is currently employed by the DA’s Office.