A prosecutor’s purpose
It is not uncommon during an election cycle to hear and read about crime rates, with refrains such as “s/he is soft on crime.”
As district attorney, crime is an everyday part of my life so I can say with conviction that I am familiar with crime in my district. It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback on who is or is not soft on crime, but the real story is more complicated.
A (July 26) newspaper article (Santa Fe New Mexican) reported that cases prosecuted by New Mexico district attorneys have fallen by 29 percent between 2017 and 2021. I cannot speak for other districts across the state, but I know this is not true for my district.
Prosecutions in my district have risen 30 percent between 2017 and 2021, all during an exceptional slowdown in the courts during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic resulting in delays getting cases in front of judges and grand juries especially when courts were literally closed.
A statement that prosecutions are down doesn’t take into consideration that there are several ways to handle cases, which do not involve prosecution as such. My sworn duty is about seeking justice not only convictions.
When appropriate and the evidence supports it, we vigorously pursue a conviction, and we work hard to get it even in cases where we have circumstances working against us. For example, witnesses are sometimes afraid to testify or may have credibility issues. Looking only at convictions and the prosecution rate is misleading.
Cases may be settled via diversion programs, which often suit all the parties involved in a case more than going to court. In our district, we have the option of the Pre-Prosecution Diversion Program for first-time, non-violent offenders, Mental Health Court and Drug Court.
The public has time and again voiced support for diversion programs, which don’t qualify as “prosecutions” when looking at the statistics. Referrals to Pre-Prosecution Diversion increased 54 percent in the same time frame.
The Legislative Finance Committee recently published a report stating cases adjudicated by jury trial decreased by 47 percent between the fiscal year 2017 and 2021. Some of the decrease is explained by COVID as mentioned earlier.
My fellow district attorneys and I have frequent discussions about the measure of the prosecution rate and convictions. We don’t agree on all points, but we do agree that the “quality of the prosecution over the quantity” is a necessary measure of evaluation.
The committees who evaluate our budget requests impose certain statistical performance measures to determine if we should receive an increase in our budget. Imposing these measures in a bubble without fully understanding what prosecutors must take into consideration never fully addresses crime, which one legislator termed the “preeminent issue on New Mexican’s minds.”
Our ethical obligation is to confidently prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The charges we seek are restricted by law. For example, my office recently obtained a life sentence following the conviction of Leland Hust for raping and murdering a 6-year-old girl. One of my constituents was shocked to find out that “life” in New Mexico includes the possibility of parole after 30 years. Our prosecution team secured a conviction of a life sentence, but the law in the state of New Mexico says he may not serve life. As prosecutors, we are only as good as the laws we work with.
After pleading guilty to the murder of Anthony and David Lopez in Valencia County, Isaac Jaramillo was sentenced to a total of 14 years (six years each for voluntary manslaughter, and one year for the firearms enhancement). Some in the community have wondered aloud, “that’s it?”
In this case, there was an eyewitness to the murders who was also a victim who made herself unavailable to testify in a jury trial. A successful jury trial is nearly impossible without the testimony of a key witness. This made this guilty plea and sentencing the most effective solution to this case. Though not adjudicated by a jury trial the case was prosecuted nevertheless, resulting in imprisonment.
When the Legislative Finance Committee runs its numbers, it looks at prosecutions verses the number of cases referred to each district attorney’s office. A case referral doesn’t necessarily equal a viable case to prosecute.
As a prosecutor, I will say it again, my job is not just convictions. I am duty bound to seek justice within the law. Behind every statistic there are people, defendants, victims, circumstances and laws. These must be considered and weighed in the balance of seeking justice and keeping the community safe.
(Barbara Romo is district attorney for the 13th Judicial District.)