BernCo DA: New Mexico AG should review questionable police shootings

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez says he’s done waiting for a so-called “DA panel” to determine whether the Albuquerque police officer who killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes in 2014 should be prosecuted. Instead, the first-term, Democratic DA in New Mexico’s most populous district wants the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer to decide. He has referred the case to state Attorney General Hector Balderas, according to a letter he sent to the Hawkes family’s legal team, which was obtained by New Mexico In Depth and the Santa Fe Reporter on Friday. 

And according to the letter, the Hawkes case is just the first. Going forward, he intends to refer all police shooting cases to the AG for a second look if his special prosecutors return recommendations that no charges be filed against the shooting officer. Not so fast, says Matt Baca, Balderas’ spokesman and general counsel.

Agreement on NM probation, parole reforms seems stuck in the mud

Lawmakers and prosecutors appear as far apart as ever on reform proposals for New Mexico’s probation and parole systems, despite Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham admonishing them to find common ground in April. That’s when the first-term Democratic governor vetoed a reform bill — with significant consternation — that would have shifted the systems away from incarceration as a first resort and likely seen significantly fewer people returning to prison and jail. 

The disagreements center largely on who should be locked back up for violating their probation and who should not, and a change that would have required the Parole Board to issue detailed, written findings when it denies someone’s release after 30 years behind bars. If changes favored by legislators become law, potentially thousands of people in New Mexico who are currently locked up would remain under state supervision, but not behind bars. It could burden the justice system, creating the need for new jobs and monitoring mechanisms, but also save the public millions in lock-up costs, legislative analysts say. Lawmakers have pushed the changes because they say a shift toward rehabilitation and providing services to lower-level offenders can help them turn their lives around and stay out of the justice system.

More parents will get help with child care under CYFD proposal

More New Mexico families will qualify for child care assistance without being wait-listed, and could stay longer on the program under proposed rules posted Monday by the Children Youth and Families Department. Under current eligibility limits put in place in the wake of a lawsuit against CYFD, families can qualify and stay on the child care program if they make less than two times the federal poverty level, but not one dollar more. The proposal would take the exit point up to 250% of the poverty level. 

To put the changes in perspective, a single mother with two children could make up to $42,660 per year and qualify, and could keep getting child care assistance with increasing co-pays until she earned $53,325. About 90 percent of child care assistance recipients are single-parent households. “It’s just our new approach and our plan to make New Mexico a safe place to be a child,” Charlie Moore-Pabst, a spokesman for CYFD, told New Mexico in Depth.

Lujan Grisham ouster of Trujillo raises questions

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s decision to fire Education Secretary Karen Trujillo on Monday took a lot of people in New Mexico by surprise, including Trujillo, who said she was blindsided. 

It’s been three days, and some New Mexicans suspect they haven’t been given the real reason Trujillo was fired and why now. 

The administration has said it was about her ability to communicate, manage and meet the governor’s expectations for transforming public education in New Mexico. 

A spokesman initially pointed to the shaky rollout of a signature education program called K-5 Plus across the state, but the administration is beginning to walk back an effort to pin the firing on implementation of that program. Trujillo had pushed back, saying she didn’t get much direction from the governor and that she had raised alarm early on about how difficult K-5 Plus would be to implement immediately, as designed by the Legislature. 

And Trujillo said if communication was deficient, it was on the part of the governor. 

“It would have been nice to have a conversation with the governor where she said what her concerns were so that I could have done something about them, but that conversation never took place,” Trujillo said. Tripp Stelnicki, Lujan Grisham’s director of communications, said Trujillo heard from top administration officials from the governor’s office, including Lujan Grisham herself, about the governor’s frustration with her communications skills and leadership at the Public Education Department — and that Trujillo’s pushback comes from someone “with an axe to grind.”

 “This was not infrequent communication. These concerns were not new. Interventions failed, a change had to be made,” Stelnicki said.

Children and pregnant women no longer allowed in solitary confinement in NM

A long-sought set of reforms to the way New Mexico jailers and prison officials use solitary confinement kicked in July 1, barring the practice for certain populations and starting the clock on what civil rights advocates and lawmakers hope will lead to unprecedented transparency on the controversial practice in the state. Effectively immediately, pregnant women and children can no longer be held in solitary, and beginning in November prisons and jails around the state will start publicly reporting how many people are being held in solitary. Insufficient data has for years frustrated lawmakers’ and others’ ability to understand the scale at which solitary confinement is used in the state’s jails and prisons. 

State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of  House Bill 364 during the legislative session that concluded in March, sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and officials who run the 33 county jails across New Mexico, reminding them of the new statute’s requirements. Among the changes is the state’s first universal definition for solitary confinement: holding someone in a cell alone for 22 or more hours a day “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction.”

Previously, jails and prisons were using a patchwork set of labels and standards to categorize solitary confinement, often frustrating lawmakers’ and others’ efforts to snap a true picture of how the tactic was used in New Mexico. The measure required prisons and jails to stop keeping children and pregnant women in solitary — except in extremely rare instances — on July 1.

No Epstein indictment here, for now

Investigators with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office plan to turn over any information they gather about alleged sex crimes committed here by Jeffrey Epstein to federal prosecutors “as soon as possible,” a spokesman for the AG says. That means, for now, Attorney General Hector Balderas’ team is working as fact-gatherer for the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, where Epstein pleaded not guilty last week to charges of sex trafficking of minors and sex trafficking conspiracy, says Matt Baca, senior counsel for Balderas’ office. Mug shot of Jeffrey Epstein made available by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department, taken following his indictment for soliciting a prostitute in 2006

“At this point it’s primarily been communication between the two offices,” Baca tells Santa Fe Reporter and New Mexico In Depth on Wednesday. “As soon as we’re done, or at a place where we feel like we have significant investigative materials to turn over to them, we plan to do that.”

He says the AG isn’t working on an indictment here, but noted “nothing is off the table in terms of possible state-level charges.”

Baca confirms that “two or more” women have told prosecutors in New Mexico they are victims of Epstein, who owns the massive Zorro Ranch in southern Santa Fe County. The AG’s office began investigating allegations against Epstein in “February or March,” he says, independent from the SDNY investigation.

UPDATED: DA with six-figure salary claims poverty, judge grants her free lawyer

Editor’s note:

New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur told NMID reporter Jeff Proctor during an interview in late June that he knew nothing about a public defender being appointed for southern New Mexico district attorney Francesca Estevez. On Monday evening, Baur emailed to say, in fact, his office had hired a private attorney, Keren Fenderson, to file a motion on Estevez’s behalf without informing Estevez. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Baur confirmed that he was unaware of the arrangement at the time of the interview with Proctor. Francesca Estevez is too poor to pay for a lawyer. That’s according to state District Judge Douglas Driggers of Las Cruces, who made the finding in a May 1 court order appointing the public defender’s office to represent Estevez as prosecutors pursue alleged violations of the Government Misconduct Act against her.

Dismal Kids Count data tracks with Martinez administration

The easiest number to understand in the just-released 2019 Annie E. Casey Kid’s Count report is that New Mexico ranks 50th overall in child well-being. That’s a stark ranking, the second year in a row New Mexico earned that distinction. For detractors and supporters of former governor Susana Martinez, there’s a lot to digest in the numbers released Monday because they track with nearly her entire tenure. The chart below shows the Kids Count rankings in several categories for 2012-2019, but most of the data comes from 2010-17 (Rankings go back to 1990, but a different methodology was used in those years, making direct comparison difficult). New Mexico results in the annual Kids Count report prepared by NM Voices for Children

“It very much is a reflection of what happened, and more specifically, what didn’t happen during the Martinez years,” said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, which monitors the indicators for New Mexico.

Police watchdog raises concerns over State Police ‘Surge’ in ABQ

A member of Albuquerque’s official police watchdog group is questioning the tactics and results of the recent “Metro Surge Operation,” in which 50 New Mexico State Police officers flooded the city ostensibly to help fight violent crime. “This is the perfect atmosphere, the perfect storm for civil rights violations, and it completely undermines the serious energy people have invested in police reform in Albuquerque,” Chelsea Van Deventer of the Albuquerque Police Oversight Board told New Mexico In Depth last week. This story originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission. Homicides and non-fatal shootings have gone up in Albuquerque in recent months, including the high-profile murder of a University of New Mexico baseball player outside a Nob Hill bar last month. In response, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mayor Tim Keller, both Democrats, agreed on the “surge,” with Keller’s office saying publicly the operation would focus on “targeting violent crime in Albuquerque.”

The results, according to a KOAT-TV story, have not matched the stated goal.

Judge sees progress in state efforts on Medicaid, SNAP

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales laid out the stakes in a long-simmering lawsuitover the Human Services Department’s record of denying food stamp and Medicaid benefits to eligible New Mexicans during a status hearing Thursday at the federal courthouse in Las Cruces. 

He’d visited the HSD office on Utah Street in Las Cruces where he had looked over cases with a front-line worker there. One client was a single mom with two kids under 6. She’d lost SNAP benefits because she had not submitted documents that apparently were already in the system. Then her family lost Medicaid benefits, even though they weren’t up for renewal, because of the decision on food stamps — something that violates federal rules. Another mom with a teen daughter got benefits approved, but needed to wait more than two weeks for an EBT card. 

This story originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission.