A Prosecutor’s Purpose
I’ve been frequently asked what a district attorney does. In New Mexico, a district attorney is a public official elected to represent the state in criminal judicial proceedings in a particular judicial district or county.
The 13th Judicial District encompasses three counties — Valencia, Cibola and Sandoval. As the chief law enforcement officer of the district, it is my responsibility to ensure, to the extent possible, fair, ethical and consistent decisions with the goal of seeking justice, within the constraints of a legislatively-controlled budget and limited resources.
I oversee a staff of about 80 employees (attorneys, support staff, administration and investigators). Much like state and local prosecutors around the country, my prosecutors contend with very high case loads and comparatively lower salaries than what they would be able to earn in other settings. This makes recruitment, training and retention an ongoing challenge, especially because a good portion of our district is rural.
Prosecutors are tasked with establishing the direction and outcome of all criminal cases, particularly through their charging and plea-bargaining decisions. When someone is accused of committing a crime, it is not the police but the DA who has the sole discretion to decide if criminal charges are filed and the severity of those charges.
Not all criminal charges go to trial, nor should they.
Numerous variables go into this decision and frequently what may seem clear cut to the public based on news reports and general knowledge is not necessarily clear cut for the prosecutor. How we proceed after charges are filed is the most important decision we will make, and often there are variables which may be out of our control.
- Is there probable cause?
- Is the police report complete and accurate?
- Do we have the evidence?
- Are the witnesses able and willing to cooperate?
- Would a specialty court or diversion program achieve a better outcome and be a more efficient use of our limited resources? (The 13th Judicial District has the option of Mental Health Court, Drug Court, Juvenile Drug Court and Pre- Prosecution Diversion. I am also exploring the viability of establishing other specialty courts in the district such as Veteran’s Court).
- If the crime is victim enumerated, how do the victims feel?
- What do our state laws support, ethically and constitutionally?
While every district attorney has essentially the same responsibilities, each district attorney can have varying philosophical approaches to the position.
I am committed to the communities in which we work. Community engagement is a priority for me, a priority I have extended to my staff — encouraging participation through service throughout the community with time off given to do so.
I am also committed to working collaboratively with law enforcement and other related agencies throughout the district. My staff and I meet regularly with law enforcement leaders, members of the court and victim service organizations, such as Haven House, Valencia County Shelter Services and Roberta’s Place, SANE and CYFD through Multi-disciplinary Task Force Meetings, the Community Coordinated Response Team and others to discuss and address issues and staff cases to achieve the best possible outcomes.
Through my membership in local Rotary clubs, the chambers of commerce and participation in community events throughout the district, my staff and I hear concerns and ideas from community members. My ongoing commitment to the community is to be of value to the community not just an entity that puts bad guys in jail.
District attorneys also work with the Legislature reviewing proposed laws. The New Mexico Legislature meets for 60 days in odd numbered years and 30-day sessions in even number years. As certain laws are proposed, district attorneys across the state track certain bills that may affect our work to determine potential collateral impact.
We analyze the bills, then send our analysis of them back to the legislative committee for consideration and on occasion incorporation. In some cases, we will take a position as a group in support or in opposition to a proposed law.
My main objective is to do everything within my power to create safety in the community. At the same time, I am committed to supporting programs in the community and within my jurisdiction which support rehabilitation and assistance for those who made mistakes and are committed to becoming productive citizens of their communities.
(Barbara Romo is district attorney for the 13th Judicial District. She is in her first term as district attorney, and she has had a 25-year career in law.)