Editor’s Note: This article has been updated and re-published to reflect comments from the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, the Albuquerque Police Department, and the Legislative Finance Committee.
SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – A new memo presented to the Legislature this week suggests shortcomings in the work done by police and prosecutors as key contributors to New Mexico’s increasing violent crime rate. Compiled by staff from the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), the memo in part highlights a lack of arrests, criminal deterrence and prosecution in Albuquerque as leading to an “accountability gap.”
However, those conclusions are drawing a sharp rebuke from Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez’s Office. In a statement Thursday, a spokeswoman for Torrez took issue with several elements in the memo, claiming some of the conclusions made by LFC staff are misleading and based on a “flawed interpretation” of data.
In 2021, Albuquerque had a record-breaking 117 homicides. KRQE News 13 published a series of articles exploring the data behind the trend. But we weren’t the only ones researching the issue: The Legislative Finance Committee (LFC)’s memo shows new data that reveals where the criminal justice system is falling short.
“The system is failing to deliver swift and certain justice and thus to create effective deterrence for crime,” the memo notes. “Additionally, while local government and law enforcement agencies have made progress in removing barriers to diversion for low-level offenders and in standing up new diversion programs to help address the root causes of crime, many programs remain underutilized.”
At least 20 New Mexico communities saw increases in violent crime since 2016, according to the analysis by the LFC. Albuquerque saw an increase and is now near the top of the list in terms of violent crime rates per 100,000 people, while Cuba and Gallup are the only communities examined with higher rates of violent crime, the data shows.
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Albuquerque (blue bar) saw an increase in violent crime in recent years. It was among the communities with the highest violent crime rate per 100,000 people in 2020, according to the LFC. Chart from LFC memo.
While the memo makes it clear that there’s no one cause for the increase, the document does suggest there are several key factors that might be playing a role. KRQE News 13 previously reported on social trends related to gun ownership and pandemic-induced stress. But the LFC memo also points to “less proactive policing” by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) as a potential driver of crime.
“Research shows the certainty of being caught is a more powerful deterrent to crime than severity of punishment. For the criminal justice system, this means it is important to prioritize solving crimes and securing convictions, particularly for serious offenses,” the memo says. But in the 2nd Judicial District, which includes Albuquerque, arrest and conviction numbers have remained relatively constant since the mid 2010s, despite rising crime. The result, the memo says, is an “accountability gap” that continues today. Part of the responsibility is on the quality of APD’s policing during the pandemic, according to the LFC memo.
“Albuquerque officers also appear to have engaged in less proactive policing during the pandemic, though proactive enforcement was a challenge even before the pandemic,” the memo states. “Albuquerque’s violent crime rate rose by 85% from 2012 to 2017 and has since remained stuck at a persistently high level. Over the same time period, arrests for violent offenses rose by only 20%, resulting in a widening accountability gap for the most serious offenses.”
While APD has been chronically understaffed in recent years, the LFC memo says staff levels are not to blame. And APD has increased staffing in several key areas. The homicide unit went from 10 detectives in 2019 to 15 detectives in 2021, the memo notes. Still, “while these are promising developments, they have not yet yielded substantially improved clearance rates,” the memo says.
The clearance rate is the ratio of the number of cases solved compared to the number of cases reported to police. If the clearance rate is low, it means many cases are going unsolved or not resulting in convictions. The LFC memo says that Albuquerque’s low clearance rate highlights a key issue.
“Declining case clearance rates and low conviction rates suggest law enforcement agencies in Albuquerque are not creating effective deterrence,” the memo states. “The flat trend in arrests is reflected in declining clearance rates for both violent and property crimes in Albuquerque, meaning offenders are less likely to be apprehended now than a decade ago.”
But it’s not just APD’s low clearance rates that are an issue, the memo notes. The LFC’s memo claims many cases that are brought to the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, headed by Raúl Torrez, never result in prosecution.
“The 2nd Judicial District Attorney declines to prosecute over 50% of the violent felony cases law enforcement refers to the office, and among the cases it does pursue, 40% are dismissed,” the memo notes. In fiscal year 2021, there were 2,270 violent felony cases sent to the District Attorney’s Office, data from the Administrative Office of District Attorneys shows. Just over half of those were “screened out” due to a variety of issues, ranging from problems with evidence to procedural issues, the LFC memo notes.
However, the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office said Thursday it “did not decline to prosecute over 50% of new violent crimes” referred by law enforcement. Clarifying the definition of “screened out,” the DA’s Office says the 50% figure mentioned in the LFC’s memo reflects the total number of cases closed in a year. In a statement sent to KRQE News 13, a spokeswoman for Torrez’s office said 2021’s “screened out” cases include many cases from the City of Albuquerque’s rape kit backlog, skewing the data.
“Unfortunately, this office closed hundreds of unprosecutable cases in FY 2021 from the rape kit backlog because victims have died, evidence has disappeared, or DNA testing occurred after the statute of limitations had run [out,]” the district attorney’s office said. “It is deeply troubling that LFC analysts would fail to account for this obvious flaw in the data and give policymakers false or incomplete information.”
The LFC’s memo also highlights issues with an increasing number of dismissed criminal cases. In 2011, about 80% of the violent felony cases taken to court resulted in convictions, according to the LFC. In 2020, only 59% of the cases resulted in convictions, the data shows.
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In the district that includes Albuquerque, felony arrests and convictions are far below the number of felonies reported. Chart from LFC memo. Data from multiple sources; see chart.
But the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office disagrees, providing data to show their conviction rate rose from FY2017 through FY2020. Torrez took office in January 2017, mid-way through the FY2017 fiscal year.
According to data provided by the DA’s office, the percent of adult felony cases resulting in guilty convictions rose from 68.1% of all cases in FY2017, to 79.3% in FY2020. The DA’s office claims its data differs from the LFC’s data because of the way multiple cases are sometimes consolidated into a single case.
“It appears that the LFC is relying on flawed data from the District Court which fails to account for the fact that many of our convictions arise from consolidated resolutions that often result in substantial prison time even if other felony cases are dismissed against that particular defendant,” the DA’s Office wrote in a statement to KRQE News 13.
The LFC memo also notes how 2017 bail reform and a new case management order implemented in 2015 might be behind some of the issues related to convicting criminals.
“Bail reform may have reduced defendants’ incentive to plea, as research shows defendants who are held in jail are more likely to accept plea bargains regardless of the strength of the underlying case in an effort to secure release,” the memo explains. In a statement, the DA’s office also noted that a Case Management Order, which only applies to Bernalillo County, contributes to the heavy case load police and prosecutors are facing.
Given the challenges, the LFC memo states prosecutors often initiate case dismissals according to data from the 2nd Judicial District Court. A 2018 evaluation by the LFC found problems with evidence to be the most common reason for felony case dismissals in the 2nd Judicial District, followed by a lack of cooperation from victims or witnesses.
Although the LFC memo points to shortcomings at specific agencies, it also notes that there are many factors likely behind Albuquerque’s crime trends. Among those are social and drug-use problems in the city.
To dig into the issue, the LFC interviewed APD officers. Their inside information highlighted “drug rips” as a key contributor to the city’s homicide surge.
“Drug rips” are instances where someone would arrange to buy drugs from a dealer, but the buyer plans to rip-off and rob the dealer. Often these are arranged on social media. When the dealer and buyer meet up, the dealer may end up dead in the robbery attempt.
APD officer interviews also revealed that gun use, in general, has increased. So “personal altercations that might have previously ended in fist fights now more commonly led to shootings, simply because more people have guns,” the LFC memo notes.
KRQE News 13 previously reported that gun violence seems to be on the rise in Albuquerque. The LFC found that guns were involved in 79% of Albuquerque homicides in 2021. That’s an increase from historic numbers, the memo notes. Across the city, the number of shots fired rose by nearly 50% from 2017 to 2020, the LFC found. And the majority of those shootings were in neighborhoods with extreme poverty, the memo adds.
Along with the analysis, the LFC memo suggests several expenditures at the state level to help fix the issues. KRQE News 13 previously reported that the LFC’s recommendation for the fiscal year 2023 state budget includes funding key aspects of public safety. The LFC also recommends establishing an Office of Gun Violence Prevention and spending $1 million to fund violence intervention grants.
In response to the memo, APD said it’s looking to legislators to help support crime fighting initiatives. “APD fully cooperated with the LFC analysts who conducted research on crime,” they said in a statement. “We look forward to an opportunity to address some of the conclusions during the legislative session as we make the case for Metro Crime Initiative and stronger laws that address crime.”
APD added that it was glad LFC saw promise in the city’s Violence Intervention Program. Launched in 2020, the program is a collaboration between law enforcement, prosecutors, analysts, and community organizations intended to break the cycle of violence. Each week, they create a list of individuals affected by gun violence and crime. Program workers contact individuals in-person, offering support services and discussions about the consequences of violence. The LFC memo says the program is “promising” and “may provide a model for the rest of the state.”
Jon Courtney, the deputy director for program evaluation at the LFC, says that the memo — and the data within — is accurate. “We’re pretty confident in the quality and the accuracy of the data. Otherwise, we wouldn’t put the [memo] out,” Courtney told KRQE News 13.
Courtney admits that there are limitations in any data study, but claims that the LFC’s process results in fair and accurate reports. “We’ve been at this a pretty a pretty long time, going back — I’d say 10 years — collecting data from criminal justice partners and working with a number of those partners, including the New Mexico Sentencing Commission to make sure that the data we’re reporting are accurate and interpreted in a fair way,” Courtney says. “I’m confident in our process. We’ve done our due diligence on that.”