ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque’s mayor laid out a crime fighting agenda Wednesday that centers on efforts to keep repeat offenders behind bars longer, rather than having them repeatedly arrested and released to commit new crimes.
Mayor Richard Berry, in an effort to bolster the ranks of a department that is about 170 officers short of full strength, said he also hopes to contract with a team of retired police officers to handle lower priority police calls such as auto theft and burglary investigations.
At the local level, Berry is urging better screening of those released from pretrial detention and changes in procedural rules that police and prosecutors say have led to many charges being dismissed because of tight deadlines.
At the state level, he is advocating measures such as bringing back the death penalty in limited cases such as the murder of a police officer and creating a more stringent three-strikes law.
But the mayor’s 14-point agenda unveiled at a luncheon of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce received some push back from officials who work in other aspects of the criminal justice system. They said the mayor might have oversimplified the cause of a recent crime rate increase.
“There are a number of complex factors that go into this jump in crime, and that includes fewer police officers, fewer bookings, a jump in opioid and heroin use and fewer resources for prosecutions,” said County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins. “It’s important not to point fingers but to understand all those factors and sincerely look for a solution.”
The mayor cited a study completed by Peter Winograd, a retired University of New Mexico professor, which found a direct correlation between the declining jail population and increasing crime rates – and no correlation between crime rates and the number of officers.
“Sometimes you just have to keep the bad guys in jail,” Berry said during his presentation. But he added that “no one should have to languish in jail while waiting for a fair trial.”
Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden said city officials aren’t advocating that most people should be held in jail pending trial, only those likely to reoffend.
“It’s not the entire jail population” that should be detained pending trial, Eden said. “It’s the worst of the worst.”
Property crimes, specifically auto theft cases, have been on an uptick in Albuquerque in recent years. In 2015, the Duke City had the ninth highest auto-theft rate of any city in the country with more than 100,000 residents, according to FBI crime statistics. Violent crimes have also increased during the past several years after seeing some of the lowest rates in the city’s recent in history, according to the data.
Berry said the city-commissioned study found a strong correlation between the rise in auto thefts and a declining jail population.
The document hasn’t been released, except for a four-page handout and PowerPoint presentations about the study.
Bernalillo County operates the more than 2,000-bed Metropolitan Detention Center on the far West Side, and a group of representatives from the courts, law enforcement and the jail have been meeting regularly for the past three years to address jail conditions. There is an ongoing lawsuit about conditions there, including medical care, use-of-force and other issues.
The average population at the jail has decreased from 3,008 in 2010 to 1,713 in 2015. Berry said the city’s study found many people who have been arrested and then released from jail went on to commit more crimes, accounting for the increased crime rate.
Matt Coyte, the president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said lengthy pretrial detention won’t decrease crime rates and efforts should instead be focused on balancing punishment, rehabilitation and prevention.
“We already know that society can eliminate crime almost completely if it puts everyone suspected of criminal behavior in jail forever,” he said. “The former Soviet Union did this very effectively in the 20th century, and currently North Korea is making a good run of it.”
One reason for the decrease in jail population was a Supreme Court decision from November 2015 that reiterated that defendants in almost all cases are entitled to reasonable bail while awaiting trial. The decision stemmed from a case against Walter Brown, a 19-year-old mentally disabled man, who spent nearly three years in jail before the case against him was dismissed.
“Jail population initiatives have been thoughtful and responsible and they’ve been proven in other communities,” Hart Stebbins said. “Not having seen the (city’s) report, it’s hard for me to see where they’re getting their information.”
Second Judicial District Chief Judge Nan Nash said three years ago the Metropolitan Detention Center had a much higher rate of inmates who were being held prior to trial than jails in similarly sized cities. Officials from the courts, law enforcement and attorneys on both sides of criminal cases have been meeting regularly and have made changes that reduced the jail’s population. Specifically, the group has came up with ways to reduce the amount of time inmates have been held waiting for hearings.
“We hope that the city and APD will fully engage with the other criminal justice partners and present the data and study findings as we continue to work together to address the criminal justice issues facing our community,” Nash said in a statement.