Grand jury time critical to efforts
District Court reducing days by 70 percent

BY SEN. SANDER RUE

ALBUQUERQUE REPUBLICAN

Just as Albuquerque is starting to see the first reduction of crime in years, the District Court is putting up a major hurdle to continued progress. The District Court announced that it is eliminating 70 percent of the grand jury time beginning October 1. For so many of us who are tired of crime and are fighting to improve public safety, the District Court's unilateral decision is troubling and signals that it is not factoring the needs of the community into its deliberations.

For the last several months, highly skilled program evaluators for the Legislative Finance Committee ( LFC ) have been studying the criminal justice system in Bernalillo County. They met with every criminal justice system agency - from the Albuquerque Police Department to the District Attorney's Office to the courts. They analyzed Albuquerque crime data from 1985 to today. On July 19, they published their findings and identified key system failures that contributed to the crime spike we have experienced since 2014.

The one critical system failure that repeatedly stood out was connection between the number of new felony indictments and crime - when indictments are down, crime is up. The LFC report's good news is that indictments are currently up and climbing. Since last summer, the District Attorney's Office, working in close coordination with APD and the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office, has doubled the number of indictments per month. Not surprisingly, over the same period of time overall crime has decreased. This is the first decrease in overall crime in Bernalillo County since 2010.

To continue this trend, the District Attorney's Office has been asking the District Court to increase grand jury availability. Instead, the District Court announced its intention to cut grand jury time from 20 days a month to 6 days, potentially crippling the current progress.

As co-chair of the Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee, I am concerned about how such a radical change at District Court will impact our community. The DA says this will dramatically reduce the number of felony cases initiated per month and will require more officers, witnesses and victims just to initiate a case. APD and BCSO say this will pull more officers into the courtroom and off the streets where they can be engaging in community policing strategies. But what about other costs? What are the costs to victims who may have to take time off work, travel Downtown, park, wait in court and not receive any reimbursement to testify at multiple hearings? How much officer overtime will be needed? Will we need more prosecutors? More public defenders? More judges? What other system resources will we need? Will this stop the hard-won progress we are making in fighting crime?

Any change to the criminal justice system that raises these many questions and potential costs for taxpayers should be carefully and openly deliberated, especially at the Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee and in front of the Legislature. The LFC report noted," Crime is expensive, and Albuquerque has among the highest crime rates in the nation. Victims pay the highest price, but taxpayers also bear the financial burden of enforcement, prosecution, incarceration, prevention and intervention." As New Mexico's appropriating body, the Legislature needs to have the opportunity to review the District Court's proposal, evaluate its costs and benefits, and determine whether to allocate funds to support the change. Radical changes in the middle of a funding cycle are risky and limit the ability of the Legislature and other agencies to adapt.

I encourage the District Court to reconsider the decision to reduce grand jury time in order to preserve the current promising crime reduction trend. I invite the District Court to present its proposal to the Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee at its next meeting and to the Legislature next year.