District attorney limits cases to serious offenders

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Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The Bernalillo County district attorney said his office plans in the coming year to turn down thousands of criminal cases referred by law enforcement for prosecution, but he said he’s hopeful the new approach will reduce crime in the long run.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez, speaking at an Albuquerque Economic Forum breakfast on Wednesday, said in recent years local prosecutors have filed charges in about 19,000 of the 25,000 cases referred by law enforcement. But because the office doesn’t have the attorneys and other positions needed to handle that caseload, he said, prosecutors in the past three years have obtained convictions in only 44 percent of criminal cases they’ve tried.

He said he plans to reject thousands more cases.

“Forty-four percent. As I’ve told my office many times, that would make us one of the lowest-performing prosecutors’ offices in the entire country,” he said at the breakfast at the Hotel Albuquerque. “What if I told you I could make you safer by doing a more effective job on the right 13,000 cases than trying to push 19,000 cases and losing more than half the time?”

He said his office will try to prosecute offenders it thinks are the most dangerous and shuffle as many other defendants as possible into drug treatment or diversion programs. Prosecutors, public defenders and the courts don’t have enough resources to litigate every case, he said.

“We simply can’t prosecute everything,” said Torrez, who took over as the county’s prosecutor at the start of the year. “What we have done as an institution is that in an attempt to do everything, we’ve done nothing well.”

Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said local business leaders think Torrez is “absolutely on the right track.”

“He has to figure out how to use the limited resources he has in the very best way. It seems to us that his plan going forward is a smart approach to making this city safer and using his resources to the highest and best use,” Cole said. “If the DA could live in an environment where he had all the resources and money he needed to move forward and do the job, that’s a different matter, and that’s also not realistic.”

She said action is needed because the crime rate in recent years has become a problem in attracting businesses to the city.

“Crime has become an economic development problem for our city and region, and we need to find a way to solve it.” Cole said. “When you have a public safety issue that has reached a level of concern and begins to negatively affect our competitiveness as a place, then that says it’s time for everyone involved to knuckle down and fix it.”

From 2009 to 2015, Torrez said, Albuquerque’s violent crime rate jumped 21.5 percent and the city is now the fifth-most violent in the country on a per capita basis. He said that during the same time, the nation’s violent crime rate dropped 13.7 percent.

Despite the local increase, Albuquerque’s overall crime rate was significantly higher in the 1990s and early 2000s than it was in 2015, which was the most recent year in which complete FBI crime statistics are available. In 2010, the city had its lowest overall crime rate dating back to at least 1990, according to the statistics.

Torrez told local business, community and political leaders that he thinks they could help reverse the increasing crime rate by investing in early childhood programs for at-risk children and drug treatment opportunities, which he said are lacking in the city.

“The question I would ask those … running for mayor, those of us who are responsible for appropriating money in Santa Fe: Is there a better return on investment?” he said.

“You’re either going to pay for me to deal with him at 25 at $45,000 a year to incarcerate him – which doesn’t account for what we pay courts, police and prosecutors – or you can try to deal with him early on and make an investment there,” he said. “One way or another, you’re going to be dealing with these children.”

Felicia Romero, a spokeswoman for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, said the district attorney’s new approach would not have an effect on how the Sheriff’s Office investigates or charges cases.

“We can’t really predict how many we’re going to get, because we’re going to investigate whatever comes our way,” Romero said. “If the District Attorney’s Office decides not prosecute a certain case, we’ll work with them to see what we need to do to change something in a certain case or whatever the circumstances may be.”

Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden, who attended the breakfast, said he was encouraged that prosecutors are planning to focus on the most serious criminals.

“What the district attorney has said today is that Bernalillo County has a serious and unmistakable problem with habitual offenders. We understand why he plans to focus on these individuals, who our officers have had to arrest over and over again for serious crimes,” Eden said in an email. “We are encouraged by these renewed efforts and appreciate our partnership with the DA to aggressively stop repeat offenders.”

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