- Associated Press - Friday, May 26, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Police in New Mexico’s largest city arrested and jailed a half dozen people on a recent Wednesday for small-time crimes like criminal trespassing, drinking in public and shoplifting at a local supermarket.

But within a week, booking sheets showed a small, clear shift.

A special order from the Albuquerque police chief on May 10 directed officers to scale back on apprehending people on a single minor, nonviolent offense. By the next Wednesday, police had gone a full day without any such arrests.

They logged just one in the week that followed amid dozens of other daily arrests on more serious, violent charges, according to Metropolitan Detention Center records.

“This is a reminder to officers that your first course of action can be a citation,” Celina Espinoza, a police spokeswoman, said of the new order. She stressed that officers are still allowed discretion to make exceptions. “It’s just opening the spectrum to make sure the punishment fits the crime.”

The order - spurred by a recent settlement agreement in a long-running lawsuit over local jail conditions - marks the latest reform in the city that aims to ease arrests and jail time for low-level offenders.

Criminal justice reform advocates nationwide have focused on reducing arrests and prosecutions for non-violent infractions - such as panhandling, prostitution and marijuana possession - that they say often disproportionately involve the homeless, people with mental illness and minorities.

In Albuquerque, low-level offenses in past years had led to deadly confrontations, such as the March 2014 fatal shooting by police of James Boyd, a homeless man with paranoid schizophrenia whose first contact with officers on the day he was shot came after a resident reported his illegal campsite.

Two former Albuquerque officers were tried on second-degree murder charges in the case that ended in a mistrial last year before prosecutors cleared them both.

Three in four people detained in U.S. jails either before trial or after sentencing were held on nonviolent traffic, property, drug or public order offenses, amounting to a “misuse of jails,” according to a 2014 report from the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice.

Once jailed, cash-strapped suspects can remain locked up for days, or weeks, because they can’t afford the bail set for them.

“(Jail) is very often a gateway to deeper involvement in the justice system in different ways,” said Nancy Fishman, a project director at the Vera Institute. “Even a small amount of time has shown the likelihood that people will recidivate.”

In November, New Mexico voters addressed the issue by approving a constitutional amendment that bars judges from keeping inmates jailed solely because they can’t afford bail, while allowing the court to deny bail of any amount to those considered exceptionally dangerous.

Despite the voter mandate, a March report found that 43 inmates eligible for release from custody at Albuquerque’s sprawling Metropolitan Detention Center remained jailed because they were unable to pay bonds of $100 or less. More than 230 other inmates were held in March on bonds of $2,000 or less.

In other areas, reforms appear to be taking hold. Last month, District Attorney Raul Torrez in Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, said his office would begin declining certain non-violent misdemeanor cases, allowing local prosecutors to focus on more serious crimes.

The new police order, for its part, resulted from an agreement in a 1995 class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates. The lawsuit took issue with crowding at the jail and argued that Albuquerque police inappropriately arrested people with mental health issues or developmental disabilities for offenses that could have been addressed with a written ticket.

Under the agreement, which still must be approved by a federal judge, Albuquerque officers have been told to simply write citations for more than two dozen non-violent misdemeanors. When a person with a warrant on one of the non-violent misdemeanor charges comes into contact with police, officers have been told to consider - before opting to make an arrest - to escort the person to a downtown courthouse where he or she can pay off the fine with cash.

Officers who decide an arrest is necessary will have to indicate in writing why they made an exception under the order.

The order drew outcry from the Albuquerque police union, whose president, Shawn Willoughby, said it “handcuffs” officers and could hamper their ability to fight crime. The bail bond industry agreed.

“There’s this feeling that low-level offenders need to be left alone,” said Gerald Madrid, president of the New Mexico Bail Bond Association. “It’s my opinion that laws need to be enforced.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico applauded what it called the decriminalization of minor and nonviolent offenses. Still, the group has concerns about how the directive will be followed over time.

“It is discretionary, right? If the officers feel a need to arrest someone they just need to document why,” said Steven Allen, the ACLU policy director in the state. “The proof will be in the pudding.”


This report is one of a series of stories from the CJ Project, an initiative to broaden the news coverage of criminal justice issues affecting New Mexico’s diverse communities.

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