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Cleaning up the DA’s Office

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The problem is worse than anyone thought.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez said in an interview Friday that there are about 7,800 Bernalillo County criminal cases dating back to early 2015 that were never prosecuted. Those cases include charges that were voluntarily dismissed by prosecutors and cases that were referred to the District Attorney’s Office by law enforcement agencies but never prosecuted.

Previously, Torrez had estimated there were about 3,000 such cases.

Included in the nearly 8,000 cases that weren’t prosecuted are about 5,200 property crimes and drug cases, 1,100 violent crimes and sexual assaults, 770 white-collar crimes, 400 crimes against children, 120 felony drunken driving cases and 75 gang-related cases, Torrez said.

“I think I can speak for everyone when I say we were astonished,” he said.

He said that if prosecutors focused only on trying the pending cases, it would take the office several years to clear the backlog. And that doesn’t take into consideration the cases that police officers and sheriff’s deputies are currently working.

“We’re going to be facing some very tough decisions about who we prosecute and how we dedicate resources,” he said.

The backlog of criminal cases began to significantly increase in February 2015 when new rules for discovery in criminal cases went into effect. Prosecutors in many cases voluntarily dismissed the charges with plans to refile charges once all the evidence had been collected, but many cases were never refiled.

Former District Attorney Kari Brandenburg has said her office started voluntarily dismissing cases because judges were throwing them out of court in large numbers when prosecutors weren’t meeting discovery deadlines.

Torrez said that in the coming months he will announce a reorganization of the office that includes a major crimes division in hopes of making sure serious cases and cases against hardened criminals don’t fall through the cracks.

The division will be staffed with the most experienced prosecutors, and they’ll be responsible for serious child abuse, sexual assault, homicides and “high-impact repeat offenders,” he said.

Albuquerque has had an uptick in crimes since the number of dismissed cases has grown. Many in the community, including most of the candidates running for mayor, are calling for more police officers to be hired.

“As our police officers continue to grapple with repeat offenders who drive the crime rate in our city, it will be incumbent on the entire criminal justice system to do better. APD and our new DA are already working together to develop a more robust system to prioritize, and aggressively prosecute, those who perpetrate crime over and over again,” Mayor Richard Berry said in an email. “We will need the help of the judges and the court system to make the gains that I believe are needed, and that are possible.”

Torrez said that even if there were more officers bringing more cases, there aren’t enough prosecutors, public defenders or court resources to try the cases in time.

“It doesn’t matter how big or small you make the top of the funnel, at the bottom of the funnel there is only so much we can do,” he said.

But he said the situation is improving.

When Torrez took over as district attorney at the start of the year, the prosecutors’ office was filled with boxes of case files dating back 15 years. The stacks were so commonplace they were used as dividers between working spaces. He said they created an unwelcoming environment for crime victims and witnesses.

Recently, the office has partnered with the Bernalillo County Clerk’s Office to move those files to an election warehouse that has available space.

“We were really delighted to be able to help with this,” County Clerk Linda Stover said.

District Attorney’s Office staffers are working to scan and save electronic copies of the files and then have the hard copies destroyed, Torrez said.

Workstations at the District Attorney's Office are much more accessible after thousands of boxes filled with old criminal case files were removed from the building. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Workstations at the District Attorney’s Office are much more accessible after thousands of boxes filled with old criminal case files were removed from the building. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Torrez said getting the files out of his office has allowed him to create about 20 new workstations.

He said that in coming weeks he’ll work to complete agreements so that victim advocacy organizations, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico, can have a working space in the District Attorney’s Office. He said other people with proper training have expressed interest in volunteering in some fashion, which could be done in the extra space.

“We’re trying to create ways for the community to engage their time, energy and passion within this office,” Torrez said.