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SANTA FE – A proposal to spend $20 million for a statewide warrant roundup is on hold – at least for now – due to concerns about its potential impact on New Mexico’s judicial system.
During a meeting Monday of the House Judiciary Committee, several lawmakers said they support the bill’s intent but questioned exactly how the money would be spent and whether it would lead to a surge in county jail populations. The committee ultimately delayed a vote on the bill until later this week.
“I don’t see how to do this effectively without overburdening everyone else who’s involved,” said Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan.
Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, the sponsor of the measure, said after Monday’s hearing he planned to work with some individuals who testified on the bill, including the state’s Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur, to come up with amendments.
The proposal, House Bill 97, would provide funding to reduce the backlog of felony and misdemeanor arrest warrants across New Mexico.
Specifically, half of the $20 million would be targeted for Bernalillo County – a total of $1 million for the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office and $9 million for law enforcement agencies in the state’s most populous county.
The other half of the funding appropriated by the legislation would be available for law enforcement agencies in other parts of the state to address their warrant backlogs.
There are roughly 3,800 active felony warrants in Bernalillo County – more than half of which are at least 2 years old, according to a legislative analysis of the bill. The oldest active arrest warrant dates back to 2000.
But Rehm said during Monday’s hearing the proposed funding infusion would be aimed specifically at the roughly 1,400 active arrest warrants for violent felony offenses.
“That is the target,” he said.
Baur said he’s not opposed to the idea of a warrant roundup, saying, “It is actually in the benefit of most of our clients to have their cases addressed.”
However, he said not all people with outstanding warrants are evading arrest, saying some may have moved or even died since the warrant was issued.
The push for funding to tackle a warrant backlog stems in part from Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s Metro Crime Initiative, which brought together local leaders to discuss ways to improve the criminal justice system.
Under the plan backed by Albuquerque city and law enforcement leaders, the additional funding would be primarily used to pay overtime for law enforcement officers from various agencies and prosecutors so they could pursue and prosecute people wanted on felony warrants.
Keller said tackling the backlog was the one single action most members of the Metro Crime Initiative agreed would make the city safer.
He joined law enforcement and political leaders earlier this month announcing plans to increase their original request to $20 million and said the increased funding would provide more cash for the court system and possibly even the jails.