SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – The state’s Public Defender Department and District Attorney Association say there are plenty of problems to address when it comes to New Mexico’s criminal justice system. Thursday the Courts, Corrections and Justice committee met at the Roundhouse for an update. 

Public defenders say there’s a severe shortage of attorneys to represent suspected criminals. According to the Law Office of the Public Defender, New Mexico has only 33% of public defense attorneys it needs to handle adult and juvenile cases. 

Bennett Baur is the Chief Public Defender. He explains, “We take these people who end up violating laws and sometimes actually hurting other people. And we kind of squeeze it through this prism of the criminal system because of that, there are so many more cases than we’re equipped to handle.”

The department is asking lawmakers for an 18% budget increase which would amount to about $12 million. “What we want for next year is to ask for the start of enough resources, which are mainly our people, the resources at the public defender’s office, our lawyers, our social workers, our investigators, our staff,” said Baur. 

There’s also a five-year plan that looks at cutting down the number of people coming into the criminal system. Baur shares, “We can do that through diversion through sentencing reform, and through decriminalizing things that are against the law, but don’t actually affect public safety.” Some of the offenses they want to see decriminalized are some DWI cases and then certain drug and property crimes. 

A study done by the American Bar Association revealed the public defender’s office needs almost three times the amount of lawyers it has to handle its caseload.

Marcus Montoya – the Eighth Judicial District Attorney was also at the Courts, Corrections and Justice committee meeting. He gave lawmakers an update on criminal trends in New Mexico. Montoya said, “The fentanyl and the retail theft and catalytic converter thefts, and mental health and behavioral health issues that surround a lot of the criminal offenders and the resources are more actually aren’t available to the citizens of New Mexico.”

Bennett Baur says until the staffing shortage is addressed – attorneys with the Law Office of Public Defenders are at risk of breaching their ethical and constitutional obligations to their clients and there’s a risk of unjust outcomes. 

Each of the 13 district attorneys’ in New Mexico has to put in their own budget request, as well as the district courts. Who are all expected to ask for an increase in budgets for staff and prosecutors.