Study: New Mexico public defenders office need 67% more lawyers to be ‘effective’

The state agency that provides legal representation for indigent defendants is drastically understaffed, according to a recently released study which says the Law Offices of the Public Defender needs 67 percent more lawyers that it has to provide “reasonably effective assistance of counsel” as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. That’s 602 more attorneys — more […]

Study: New Mexico public defenders office need 67% more lawyers to be ‘effective’

The state agency that provides legal representation for indigent defendants is drastically understaffed, according to a recently released study which says the Law Offices of the Public Defender needs 67 percent more lawyers that it has to provide “reasonably effective assistance of counsel” as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

That’s 602 more attorneys — more than double the 295 the agency currently has.  

“It frightening,” Public Defender Commission Chairman Thomas J. Clear III told House Appropriations and Finance Committee members Friday. “I have warned it is a problem that is going to cost this state a lot of money, and this report verifies it.

 “I applaud our attorneys …[who] handle these cases, but quite frankly, the defendants aren’t receiving any kind of quality representation systemically,” he added.

Completed by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, the study is an outgrowth of a 2016 crisis within the state agency. At the time, then-newly appointed Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur was found in contempt of court for telling officials in the Hobbs area the Public Defenders Office was temporarily unable to accept any new cases because it had no one to do the work.

“We said, ‘Please stop sending cases to us until we get on our feet,’ ” Baur said in an interview.

A state district judge ordered the office to continue taking all the cases, and the agency appealed the issue to the state Supreme Court, which let the lower court’s ruling stand.

Dubbed The New Mexico Project, the study — funded in part by a $50,000 legislative appropriation from 2017 — examined the numbers and needs of public defenders.

With individual case loads hovering around 200, the study found public defenders in New Mexico have an average of just 10 hours to spend on each case,  including communicating with clients, conducting discovery, securing experts and investigators, researching and writing legal briefs, preparing for and attending court hearings and handling plea negotiations, the study says.

The agency handles about 57,500 cases in 13 judicial districts each year.

“Like the frog in boiling water, little by little, we have been overwhelmed by the numbers coming through,” Baur said last week. “It’s taken us decades to get into this position and it will take us some time to get out of it.”

Solving the problem will take multilevel approach, he said. 

“The state could give us three times our budget, but the state could also cut down on the number of cases that are coming into the system — the number of crimes we are required to represent. We can do it by getting more money, but frankly, I’d rather have fewer cases,” Baur said.

That would mean transforming some laws that include jail time into offenses that only carry citations. 

For example, driving without a license used to be punishable by up to a year in jail. Now, it’s a ticket.

“We don’t have to appear on those anymore, and that’s important,” Baur said, adding “defelonizing” drug possession could be an important step.

“If we can reduce the number of people who need our services, then we can provide better services with the resources we have,” he told the committee.

The agency had asked the Legislature for a 10.7 percent increase [about a $6.1 million increase over last years operating budget of $58.4 million] according to documents provided by the Law Offices of the Public Defender. The Legislative Finance Committee recommended a 6 percent increase, while the executive branch recommended an increase of 4.7 percent, according to a spokeswoman for the public defender.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted to support the Legislative Finance Committee recommendation Friday. 

The report struck a chord with Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque.

“As an attorney who has worked with Law Office of the Public Defender, … I am ecstatic to finally see some real data in a study on the status of the system, because it is dire,” she said. “It just backs what many of us have known for several years, which is we are on the brink — if not past the brink — of constitutional crisis.”

Hochman-Vigil said what’s really needed is a “deeper dive” to figure out a way to develop a pipeline of attorneys who can fulfill the state’s needs. 

“I’m glad we are having this conversation today,” she said. “But it’s far from over.” 

We're ad free

That means that we rely on support from readers like you. Help us keep reporting on the most important New Mexico Stories by donating today.

Related

Both Republicans and Democrats skeptical of guv’s proposals for special session

Both Republicans and Democrats skeptical of guv’s proposals for special session

A representative from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office outlined on Thursday the bills the governor’s office will back during the upcoming special session, but…
Senators throw support to embattled Ivey-Soto

Senators throw support to embattled Ivey-Soto

By Justin Horwath, New Mexico In Dept Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto is running for a fourth term despite the state Democratic Party’s decision to censure…
AG announces legislative priorities for upcoming special session

AG announces legislative priorities for upcoming special session

Attorney General Raúl Torrez announced on Thursday his legislative priorities for July’s special legislative session, including the creation of a crime victim’s unit to…
SCOTUS rejects proposed resolution to Rio Grande water dispute

SCOTUS rejects proposed resolution to Rio Grande water dispute

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a proposed settlement that would have ended the more-than decade-long dispute between Texas and New…
FWS says two Rio Grande fish do not warrant listing under Endangered Species Act

FWS says two Rio Grande fish do not warrant listing under Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that two fish species found in New Mexico do not meet the criteria for listing them as…
Want to know what Albuquerque’s climate might be like in 2080? Head to Roswell

Want to know what Albuquerque’s climate might be like in 2080? Head to Roswell

Thanks to climate change, the Albuquerque of the future may feel a bit more like present-day Roswell. That’s according to a new web app…
Stansbury outlines funding secured for early childhood and youth services programs

Stansbury outlines funding secured for early childhood and youth services programs

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury secured $8.3 million for childhood development and youth services in the 1st congressional district through federal community project funding. Stansbury,…
Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican The main things that bring Brayan Chavez to school every day: Seeing, talking to and engaging with…
Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican Brittany Behenna Griffith has a laundry list of adjectives to describe the ideal special education teacher:…
Some mental health issues on the rise in New Mexico

Some mental health issues on the rise in New Mexico

A recent report by KFF, a foundation that provides health policy analysis, found mental health issues on the rise and disparities in mental health…
Heinrich questions FDA leadership on baby formula safety, mifepristone

Heinrich questions FDA leadership on baby formula safety, mifepristone

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf answered questions about the safety of human milk formula and mifepristone on Wednesday. Sen. Martin…
Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Amy Maxmen, KFF Health News Four years after hospitals in New York City overflowed with covid-19 patients, emergency physician Sonya Stokes remains shaken by…
Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Texas-based Christian group trying to restrict access to abortion medication on Thursday. The case, FDA v. the…
How abortion care has changed since Dobbs 

How abortion care has changed since Dobbs 

In the month of March 2024 alone, 1,650 clinician-provided abortions took place in New Mexico, according to the reproductive research organization, the Guttmacher Institute.…
Many Democrats endorsed by reproductive rights group won primaries

Many Democrats endorsed by reproductive rights group won primaries

With nearly 53 percent of the precincts reporting as of 11 p.m. Tuesday, most of the legislative candidates endorsed by Planned Parenthood Votes New…
Some mental health issues on the rise in New Mexico

Some mental health issues on the rise in New Mexico

A recent report by KFF, a foundation that provides health policy analysis, found mental health issues on the rise and disparities in mental health…
New Mexico food banks say food insecurity is on the rise

New Mexico food banks say food insecurity is on the rise

Food insecurity is on the rise as state benefits have decreased and the future of federal benefits have an uncertain future.  Sonya Warwick, director…
Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Texas-based Christian group trying to restrict access to abortion medication on Thursday. The case, FDA v. the…
Republican Herrell signs onto what critics call anti-transgender message

Republican Herrell signs onto what critics call anti-transgender message

Republican candidate Yvette Herrell, who is running against Democrat Rep. Gabe Vasquez for New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District seat, committed herself to a message…
Post-primary, Biden leads Trump in NM

Post-primary, Biden leads Trump in NM

President Joe Biden leads former president Donald Trump in the race for New Mexico’s five electoral seats, according to a poll commissioned by NM…
Democrats announce spending on CD2 race

Democrats announce spending on CD2 race

The Democratic National Committee announced on Monday that it will spend $70,000 for organizing staff to aid U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez, the Democrat trying…
Some mental health issues on the rise in New Mexico

Some mental health issues on the rise in New Mexico

A recent report by KFF, a foundation that provides health policy analysis, found mental health issues on the rise and disparities in mental health…
SCOTUS rejects proposed resolution to Rio Grande water dispute

SCOTUS rejects proposed resolution to Rio Grande water dispute

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a proposed settlement that would have ended the more-than decade-long dispute between Texas and New…
FWS says two Rio Grande fish do not warrant listing under Endangered Species Act

FWS says two Rio Grande fish do not warrant listing under Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that two fish species found in New Mexico do not meet the criteria for listing them as…

GET INVOLVED

© 2023 New Mexico Political Report