May 27, 2022

New Mexico’s legal desert affects victims of violence

Joe Gratz

Flickr/cc

While the federal reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act will ensure services for victims for several more years, victims will likely still struggle due to New Mexico’s “legal desert.”

VAWA] provides funding to state and local programming and agencies to help those who suffer gender-based violence. The U.S. Congress last reauthorized it in 2013. President Joe Biden signed the 2022 reauthorization this spring and it is expected to help with issues such as sex trafficking, missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives, sexual assault and housing and it expands programming to include the LGBTQIA+ community.

Related: What the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization means for the LGBTQ community

New Mexico ranks as seventh in the nation for the rate of sexual assault. Alexandria Taylor, director of Sexual Assault Services at the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, said one factor in what she has called a “crisis” is New Mexico’s legal desert.

The majority of victims don’t report but for those who do, Taylor told NM Political Report that 93 percent of the cases are dismissed.

“When the total system is not working, it revictimizes victims. It is brutal. The outcome we have been socialized to believe is justice is so far away for so many people. When the entire system doesn’t work, it impacts survivors,” Taylor said.

She said there are some rural counties in New Mexico that lack a private practice attorney.

“They get into family court; it is too adversarial a system and they don’t have the skills and knowledge to navigate it [without an attorney]. It means the system is not working to protect them when we’ve said it would. They are denied access to the justice they are seeking,” she said.

The problem is not just a problem in e New Mexico, but nationwide, according to the American Bar Association. Even a state as populous as California has rural counties considered legal deserts, according to the ABA.

Some states, however, such as South Dakota, have tried to tackle the issue by creating incentives for young attorneys to move to rural counties. 

According to a study the ABA conducted in 2020, New Mexico has 5,612 lawyers serving the entire state, which amounts to 2.7 lawyers per 1,000 people. 

The vast majority, 3,137 lawyers, are practicing in Bernalillo County. Guadalupe County has one. Catron and Mora counties have three. De Baca, Harding and Hidalgo counties have none.

Even Doña Ana County, home to the second largest city in the state, has just 324 lawyers.

“I think, literally, each community has different challenges, whether it’s the largest county or the smallest county in New Mexico. Our DAs [district attorneys] aren’t resourced for these types of cases. There’s a shortage of attorneys across the board to handle these cases. I definitely see that statewide. That’s an issue no matter what amount of attorneys are in a DA’s office. Smaller

communities, rural communities have different challenges than Albuquerque,which has a sheer volume issue. Rural communities have limited resources across the board and fewer detectives,” Taylor said.

Taylor said that for a victim filing a restraining order in district court, the majority of victims have to represent themselves.

“I have watched families and survivors suffer through court representing themselves often against parties who are represented. A dynamic of abuse is financial abuse,” Taylor said.

She said that though there are some funds available to help victims seek legal counsel, the money caps out at $2,000.

“What attorney can you retain for $2,000? It’s a life-saving measure that is just not accessible,” Taylor said, adding that she suspects that these problems impact the 93 percent dismissal rate of sexual assault cases in New Mexico.

Michelle Garcia, an attorney with New Mexico Legal Aid and manager of the organization’s Safe to Be You program, said New Mexico “has never been considered a place where we have a comprehensive response to violence.”

She said the state has “incredibly high rates of interpersonal violence and sexual assault.”

“When it comes to civil law, you get just as much justice as you can afford and in New Mexico, you don’t have many who can afford any justice,” she said.

Garcia called the court system a “blunt instrument to solve complex societal problems.”

Taylor said a solution for some has been to engage in restorative justice.

“Survivors from certain communities never engage with the criminal legal system, so that’s really exciting,” she said. 

She said that for members of communities who fear calling police could lead to law enforcement reharming the victim or another loved one, restorative justice can enable a victim to bypass the legal system but begin a healing process. For people of color, immigrants and the LGBTQ community, restorative justice can help them to gain a sense of agency and heal and short circuit legal pathways that can revictimize them.

Taylor said violence is often cyclical and intergenerational. Perpetrators of violence, sexual assault and other forms of abuse have themselves, often times, been a victim in the past.

“No one enters violence the first time having committed it,” she said.

Taylor said she had the opportunity to talk to a group of men who served prison time but who also went through a restorative justice process. She said that when released, the men she talked to became facilitators and now run restorative justice organizations. She said they all told her that going through a restorative justice healing process led them to change their lives.

“Survivors have told us they are desperate to have other pathways to accountability and justice,” she said.