NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Public defenders are the last line of defense for many accused of crime in New Mexico. They tackle cases ranging from high-profile murders to minor misdemeanors, all for the benefit of those who can’t afford a lawyer – and all on the public’s dime. But the National Association for Public Defense says the nation is in a “public defense crisis.”
Last year, New Mexico’s public defenders sounded the alarm and asked lawmakers for a budget boost, citing numbers that suggested the Law Office of the Public Defender needed hundreds of additional attorneys. In 2023, they did get a boost of about 13%, or about $8 million from the state’s general fund. But now, Chief Public Defender Bennett J. Baur says that’s not enough to solve the issue.
“We’re not going to solve this problem in a year. We may not solve the problem in five years,” Baur says. “It is impossible for our system to hire our way out of this problem, and that’s why it’s so important that we think about it differently, rather than throwing money at the problem. Let’s take people out of the system, let’s use our money, which is our taxpayer money, let’s use it in a way that’s effective.”
Baur suggests focusing more on programs like drug court and behavioral health-focused court, which provide treatment rather than just punishment. That’s one way to try to keep people from becoming repeat offenders that waste court resources, Baur says.
Baur notes that with all the discussions over crime in New Mexico, it may be time to also rethink whether the current system is working. “If you can’t hire enough people to prosecute and defend, maybe you’re prosecuting too many cases,” Baur says. “And I think those are the honest conversations that we have to have.”
And while it may be easy to assume the public defender’s office is only focused on getting the accused off the hook, Baur paints a different picture of his office’s goal.
“A lot of the time, the defense, the prosecution, and the courts actually work together to try and solve problems,” Baur says. “Our job is to fight over particular cases, but not necessarily to fight over what the goals are.”
The primary goals focus on community safety, Baur says.