ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Thousands of criminal cases have been dismissed and the suspects released from jail, the crime rate is eye-popping and the prosecutor’s office is crowded, bleak and unwelcoming.
Criminal justice in Albuquerque is in dire need of change, brand new District Attorney Raúl Torrez said, echoing a theme that has been hammered on by Albuquerque Police Department Chief Gorden Eden and Mayor Richard Berry regarding the impact of “catch and release” on public safety.
“I’ve worked in a lot of government offices and I’ve never seen anything like this. … Think about what this does to people’s morale when they come in here,” he said as he walked through a maze of thousands of boxes filled with court cases during a tour he gave the Journal of the district attorney’s office this week. “You’ve been in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, it’s like ‘We’re on it. We’re going to put everything into it.’ This is ‘We’re drowning.'”
Yes, the aesthetics of the office are unremarkable. The off-white walls are empty, except for the occasional paper tacked up to indicate that the nearby attorneys work in “violent crime,” “gangs” or “crimes against children.”
Some of the boxes of files date back 20 years and are labeled with things like “CSPs” (criminal sexual penetration) and the names of defendants with long criminal histories.
They act as makeshift dividers to sitting areas, are stacked against walls and are crowded into many of the prosecutors’ small offices in the four-story building.
The DA’s office doesn’t have the manpower or scanners to digitally archive the documents, Torrez said. He said he’s trying to work with Bernalillo County to have them archived and removed from the office within months.
But the problems with the office go far beyond looks. Torrez said that, since February 2015, about 3,000 criminal cases were dismissed, many voluntarily by prosecutors, because of fear by his predecessor that court-mandated deadlines for discovery wouldn’t be met and the case would be thrown out.
Instead of trying the cases, prosecutors filed “nolle prosequi” notices in court and abandoned the cases so that the charges could be refiled later, when more evidence was available. But most of those cases have never been refiled.
The dismissals include 2,500 cases from the office’s community crimes division, primarily property crimes, and 500 from other divisions, such as violent crime, he said.
When those charges were dismissed, the suspects were released from jail and, in some cases, committed additional crimes that also were dismissed, Torrez said.
A new direction
“My predecessor’s policy was essentially to hold off on indicting, charging and moving forward with cases until we had everything we could possibly need to keep the prosecution alive once we filed it,” Torrez said. “We’re not going to do that anymore. We’re going to file these cases and we’re going to let the court make the decision on whether or not they want to impose these strict deadlines.”
Kari Brandenburg, the former district attorney for 16 years, has said her office started voluntarily dismissing cases only after judges started throwing them out in large numbers when management rules were first enacted. She said the strategy prevented her office from having to re-indict cases after they were dismissed by judges, which would have strained office resources.
“I certainly respect his perspective and willingness to try something new,” Brandenburg said in an interview Friday. “However, we felt it was our experience that, if we didn’t have the majority of the evidence at arraignment, then the case would be dismissed.”
The deadlines were set in a Case Management Order that was approved by the Supreme Court. They were created in part to ease overcrowding at the Metropolitan Detention Center and apply to criminal courts in the 2nd Judicial District.
The rules went into effect in February 2015 and have had a dramatic effect on criminal prosecutions in Bernalillo County, numerous law enforcement officials have said.
Supreme Court justices have publicly said Brandenburg was misreading the order.
Torrez said there’s debate about how to interpret the order. He doesn’t think its necessary for prosecutors to wait until they have all possible evidence in the case before filing charges.
“We are responsible for disclosing the information that we have in our possession that we used to determine probable cause,” he said.
To reduce the number of dismissals, Torrez said he’ll prosecute fewer cases, but target serious crimes and suspects with a history of run-ins with the law.
In recent years, the district attorney’s office in Albuquerque opened about 18,000 misdemeanor and criminal cases. Torrez said a smarter strategy would be to send many of those defendants to probation or diversion programs and build stronger cases against the more serious criminals.
Attorneys will consider a suspect’s frequency of coming into contact with police, criminal history, nature of the case and whether the suspect has a history of being a felon in possession of a firearm – which he said is a major red flag.
Priorities will go to the most frequent fliers in the criminal justice system, who will be assigned experienced attorneys who will aggressively pursue cases against them, even for menial crimes like drug possession, he said.
Torrez said he has a team of attorneys using the same criteria on the thousands of dismissed cases so they can decide which ones to refile.
“It’s a relatively small percentage of the criminal population that drives a disproportionate amount of crime,” Torrez said. “If you surgically dedicate resources to those criminal overperformers and give them the quality customer service that they need, what you should see, as they’ve seen in other cities, is a dramatic decline in overall crime.”
Police officials – who Brandenburg recently compared to a “continuing criminal enterprise” – said they’re encouraged by steps Torrez has taken to improve relationships between police and prosecutors.
“The best way for me to describe our relationship with the new district attorney is outstanding,” Eden said in an email. “He has a clear understanding of the problems that we are facing in Bernalillo County. He is very engaged in all areas of the criminal justice system and recognizes the many challenges we all face.”
Celina Espinoza, a police spokeswoman, said a member of the district attorney’s office, and sometimes Torrez, has attended weekly high-level crime briefings where police discuss trends and analyze how the arrests of certain suspects affect overall crime trends. She said it’s an important place to learn about who is causing the most trouble in the city.
“This has been very encouraging for our department and our investigators,” she said. “It’s nice to know that you’re being heard.