KUNM

Unclogging The Criminal Justice System

Mar 9, 2016

How quickly criminal cases work their way through the system has a big impact on defendants’ lives. And it’s been a little over a year since the state Supreme Court first set deadlines to speed things up and clear thousands of backlogged cases in Bernalillo County, the state’s busiest judicial district. The criminal justice system is still adjusting.

Before the rules went into effect, people who’d been arrested could spend months waiting in the crowded Bernalillo County jail for their day in court. "The fact that somebody’s been arrested doesn’t mean they’re guilty. It just means they’ve been arrested," said Jeff Rein, a supervisor in the Public Defender's Office.

And there used to be another, more subtle problem in play, too: uncertainty. Hearings were constantly being rescheduled as cases dragged on and on. Rein said it’s gotten a lot better.

"Even if you got to go to court on a particular day and something important’s going to happen, you know the date, as opposed to just wondering, 'Is this ever going to end?'" he said. "You’ve got something to shoot for, and it makes the rest of the decisions you have to make in your life a little bit easier."

Rein said defendants’ school, work and family lives are thrown into upheaval—and it’s on the court system to make sure there’s a good reason. "I like the idea of having shorter deadlines in order to make sure that people don’t get lost in the system," he said. "And if somebody’s life gets disrupted, let’s find out if it’s appropriate or not."

The rules are called the Case Management Order, and it establishes timelines for cases to be completed. It also forces prosecutors to present evidence quickly.

"The Case Management Order’s pretty good about not being kind of blind to who’s causing the drag, and just saying that these are the dates when things have to happen, so everybody go do your job," Rein said.

One of the main arguments made by District Attorney Kari Brandenburg against the order was that dangerous people could escape justice and end up back on the street. In response, the Supreme Court loosened the timeline a bit last month and also said that if the prosecution can show a defendant is dangerous, cases don’t have to be dismissed because of blown deadlines.

Brandenburg said that’s still not enough.

"We don’t know who’s going to be dangerous or not," she said. "And we have cases all the time where someone doesn’t have a record of any violent criminal activity but then they commit a homicide."

Brandenburg said given the limited resources available for processing evidence, it’s still difficult to meet the deadline demands—even with the court’s changes. "Unfortunately, it takes something really bad happening to illustrate to the community what’s at stake here," she said. "Hopefully we will be able to make future amendments without having anything like that occur."

Relaxing deadlines around evidence and other materials used to charge somebody is the biggest issue, she added, and she’ll continue to push for reforming the Case Management Order, or CMO. But she also just announced that after 15 years as district attorney, she won’t run for the office again. Her term is up at the end of the year. "I hope that the court will continue to look at the CMO and the problems that we’re having with it and will keep an open mind," she said.

When the order went into effect in 2015, there were about 3,000 active criminal cases pending. A year later, that number dropped to just 600, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. Arthur Pepin is the director there.

"I don’t think that any of the changes made really create a concern that we’ll go back to the old days where cases get to be two and three years old," he said. "The Case Management Order still has very clear, defined timelines within which things will happen."

It’s a different court than it was a year ago, Pepin said, because the system is more efficient. "It still remains a very significant and critical step that protects the rights of people to a speedy trial but accommodates the realities that the police officers and the prosecutors face in getting evidence to the court and to the defense attorneys."

Even with the modifications, he finished, the new rules are doing what they were meant to do.

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KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Con Alma Health Foundation. Find it online at publichealthnm.org.