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Courting disaster?

SANTA FE, N.M. — The budget squeeze affecting New Mexico’s court system is hitting home in Santa Fe.

The 1st Judicial District Court and the District Attorney’s Office are keeping vacancies open. Local public defenders are carrying caseloads that are heavier than the national recommendation.

And since judicial due process is constitutionally required, people in those offices have to pick up the slack.

The district court in Santa Fe, which has an annual budget of about $7 million, is waiting on help as the governor and Legislature debate how to finance the court system, which state Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels recently said was on “life support” because of its monetary shortfall.

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On Wednesday, after Gov. Susana Martinez met with the Board of Finance, courts statewide got $600,000 in emergency funding to pay jurors for their trial service through mid-April. But that’s not enough to cover trials from April until July 1, when the next fiscal year begins and a new state budget kicks in.

In a recent interview, Chief District Judge Sarah Singleton said there are four open clerk positions in Santa Fe that can’t be filled for lack of funding. The vacancies are close to 20 percent of the 21 total clerk positions, according to the chief of the clerk’s office.

Clerks do everything from interact with the public, file documents in the electronic records system and send copies of pleadings to lawyers on both sides of a case.

“All of that is being delayed, and that can have a real impact on a judge’s ability to decide a case because a plea may not be available in a file for a judge to look at when they’re holding a hearing and trying to rule on an issue,” Singleton said.

“And it generally means that the people are not getting the kind of service that they need to get from our court.”

It’s not there yet, Singleton said, but the court could get to the point where some employees may have to be furloughed.

“We would be taking our lowest-paid employees and we would be balancing the budget on their backs,” Singleton said. “When you have fewer clerks and you require them to do the same amount or more than they used to do when they had four additional people, it is not good for morale. It’s not conducive to doing a good job because you’re constantly rushed and it’s kind of difficult to do the really detail-oriented job they have to do when you’re pushed at that kind of a rate.”

District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer, right, and public defender Sydney West, left, talk to a participant in drug court in 2014. Court officials say programs like drug court would be the first to go if funding for the New Mexico court system doesn't improve. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer, right, and public defender Sydney West, left, talk to a participant in drug court in 2014. Court officials say programs like drug court would be the first to go if funding for the New Mexico court system doesn’t improve. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Singleton said that the courts don’t get adequate funding, then specialty programs, like drug court, which provides intensive supervision for people accused of nonviolent drug crimes, will be the first to go. These programs aren’t under the constitutional mandates for a speedy trial that regular courts must deal with. The drug court, which employs six people, had a budget of about $775,000 this fiscal year, according to 1st Judicial District CEO Stephen Pacheco.

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“It would be just a real shame and very shortsighted because, in the long run, it’s much cheaper to run somebody through drug court with the possibility of a good result than it is to have them incarcerated for years and years with a very high recidivism rate after that,” Singleton said. “But if we have to make a choice, we have to go with what we’re constitutionally mandated to do.”

District Attorney Marco Serna, who ran for office last year on a platform of putting non-violent drug offenders in treatment programs instead of in jail, said he would hate to see the drug court close shop.

“It would be horrible to cut a specialty court because they do so much,” he said. “To see those types of courts be cut because we don’t have enough money is counterintuitive. These are the specialty courts that actually reduce recidivism so, if we don’t have those available to defendants to help them with addiction and to help reduce recidivism, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Serna also has spots for a deputy district attorney and a few for senior trial attorneys, but he said he’s not going to fill them until Gov. Martinez signs off on a budget so he’ll know if he has enough money. His attorneys have been taking on more work as a result.

“I don’t want to consider furloughs and I don’t want to consider terminating any of my employees because they’re already taking on so much work as it is,” he said.

State Public Defender Ben Baur says more than 80 percent of criminal defendants in the 1st Judicial District – Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties – qualify for a public defender. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

State Public Defender Ben Baur says more than 80 percent of criminal defendants in the 1st Judicial District – Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties – qualify for a public defender. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

The Law Office of the Public Defender is also pushing for money to hire more lawyers. Chief Public Defender Ben Baur said more than 80 percent of criminal defendants in the 1st Judicial District – Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties – qualify for a public defender and his staff here is overworked.

In October, the agency’s annual budget was reduced by 3 percent amid across-the-board state spending cuts.

The National Association for Court Management recommends that lawyers take on no more than 150 felony and 400 misdemeanor cases per year. Baur said his attorneys are over those numbers.

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“The number of cases and requirements placed on the public defenders office is more than we should be able to handle,” Baur said. “I think there are a lot of clients who are getting excellent representation here in Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties, but we struggle to keep up.”

He’s asking for a 10 percent funding increase to his roughly $47.3 million budget – up from $41.8 million in 2014 – to hire 25 more attorneys statewide.

An overworked public defenders office can jam up the entire system. A Lea County district judge held Baur in contempt of court in October because his defense lawyers weren’t showing up for hearings. Baur said lawyers weren’t making appearances because he doesn’t have enough lawyers in Lea County to be at every hearing.

On a busy docket day in one Santa Fe courtroom last year, a judge excoriated a public defender for not being prepared. The public defender cited caseload as the source of the problem. Missed hearings have to be rescheduled, prolonging the cases, and putting extra strain on judges and prosecutors.

“It crams the criminal justice system as a whole,” Serna said. “We can’t effectively prosecute these individuals.”

Both Serna and Baur said that small things can be tweaked so time and money can be saved. Anyone charged with a crime that may come with jail time, including violations like driving without a valid license, is constitutionally allowed to have a lawyer. Baur said changing the potential criminal penalties for crimes like that would free up his staff. Serna said streamlining plea deals so that they don’t take up as much court time would save money. Such ideas are very preliminary, Serna said.

“We’re looking at other ways to handle things but, in the end, there just has to be truth in funding,” Baur said. “We need more resources.”

House Bill 81, sponsored by Rep. Republican Nate Gentry and Democrat Rep. Daniel Ivey-Soto, both from Albuquerque, would earmark for the courts 3 percent of the state General Fund, and revenue from land grant permanent funds and the federal Mineral Leasing Act.

The bill’s fiscal impact report says the benchmark would give the judicial system $177.9 million, which is a 14 percent increase from the $156 million the courts received the current fiscal year. The bill recently got through the House Judiciary Committee with a “Do Pass” recommendation.

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