The Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a speedy trial. But how speedy is speedy? The Supreme Court agreed on Wednesday, Jan. 27, to alter controversial rules that sped up criminal cases in the state’s most populous county.
For years, it was no secret in Bernalillo County’s criminal justice system: If you got arrested—even on relatively minor charges—and you couldn’t afford bail, you might end up sitting in jail for months. The courts were clogged. And the Metropolitan Detention Center was beyond max capacity while people waited for their day in court. Then, even if they were eventually found to be innocent, they’d still spent some time in lockup.
Alan Wagman is an assistant public defender. He’s been an attorney for 20 years and specialized in criminal defense for 14. "Cases were really, really, really dragging on," he said. "You’d have people charged with stealing a television set and not coming to trial for two or three years."
He said even beyond jail overcrowding issues, having, for example, an unresolved felony case hanging over your head creates all kinds of problems—particularly economic ones. "Even if they’re out of jail, they apply for jobs, and they get turned down because the employer looks and sees there’s a pending felony case," he said. "And this is somebody who’s presumed innocent and may have done nothing. And who wants to get to trial to prove they didn’t do anything."
In the past, when it took prosecutors a long time to present evidence, Wagman said that created problems for the defense, too. "The defense has to investigate the situation. And you can’t investigate if you don’t know what the other side is looking at," he said.
Other attorneys have said stalling was used as a tactic by prosecutors: The accused become so desperate to get out of jail or move on with their lives, they jump at whatever plea deal comes their way.
Then, about a year ago, the state’s Supreme Court imposed what’s called a Case Management Order in the Second Judicial District—or Bernalillo County. The order imposed new deadlines and sped up the timeline for criminal proceedings. District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said in an interview with KUNM in late December that it all happened too fast. "We went from 0 miles per hour to 100 miles per hour," she said. "This is probably the biggest change in the criminal justice system in at least the past 30 years."
The order forced prosecutors to produce the evidence used to charge someone with a crime much more quickly than ever before. Brandenburg says that meant a lot of cases were being dismissed, and indictments dropped off—from about 5,000 in 2014 to just 2,000 last year. "Now if they came in and said, 'OK, we’re going to change this, and we’re going to tighten up all these deadlines and we’re going to give you guys, you know, $5 million dollars to hire employees so that you can do this...' We’re doing all of this additional work with no additional resources."
The DA has suggested that the new rules let dangerous felons off the hook and put them back on the streets.
"Our complaint is that we can’t possibly keep up, mainly because law enforcement can’t keep up, and we can’t do the reports and have everything done the way we need to," Brandenburg said.
She submitted a wish list of changes to the rules, and so did other folks within the criminal justice system. The Supreme Court has agreed to make some modifications: Like adding one to three months for cases to go to trial, and not allowing cases involving a dangerous defendant to be dismissed because of missed deadlines. And there’s more time for the prosecution to share evidence in some instances.
Arthur Pepin, director for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said overall, the new system has actually been working pretty well. "My belief, from looking at the way things are functioning now, is that the Case Management Order is being effective at doing what it should do," he said.
It guarantees that constitutional right to a speedy trial and also requires that when charges are brought "the district attorney is able to present evidence to the defendant that allows the defendant to prepare to defend themselves and know what they’re charged with."
Pepin said it used to be reasonable to assume that when you went to court, whatever was scheduled to happen probably wouldn’t happen. "As this order hits its one-year anniversary, the practice of expecting that cases will go forward as they’re scheduled will be built into the system of expectations everybody has."
And as for the District Attorney’s Office, Brandenburg’s still reviewing the changes and was unable to comment before this story aired.