As I approach the end of my first term in office as the 13th Judicial District Attorney, I am reflecting on what has been accomplished, what the challenges have been and what I would still like to accomplish before I leave office. Because I am running for a second term, this will be my last regular column until I hopefully win a second term in November. In the meantime, members of my staff will contribute guest columns bi-monthly to continue educating the public about the district attorney and its role in the criminal justice system.
Over the past three years I have rebuilt the foundation of the office and changed the culture to a highly professional, ethical and respected law enforcement agency staffed with dedicated, ethical and motivated individuals. This has allowed me to recruit and retain a core group of experienced attorneys and support staff who all embrace my philosophy. They all know that they are appreciated and treated like family, while also understanding the high standards that are expected of them.
I am very proud of my hard-working staff for working diligently and consistently under often adverse conditions to allow us to fulfill our mission of seeking justice. One of the greatest challenges I continue to face is not unique to my office or even to New Mexico. In fact, it is a national problem finding lawyers who want to work as prosecutors. There are many reasons for this. The hours are long, the pay is nowhere near competitive to the private sector and the stress and toll on a person’s health and family can be overwhelming. On occasion, I have sent attorneys, victim advocates and other staff members to counseling sessions to assist in the mitigation of secondary trauma because of working with horrific criminal stories and details month in and month out. My attorneys carry average of 289 cases. I have made every effort within the budgetary restrictions imposed on us by the state to raise salaries, increase training opportunities, and one-on-one mentorship, and to provide flexible humane working conditions – flex time, dog-friendly offices, family-first policies and so on. Even with these changes, it is a constant challenge to attract attorneys to work as prosecutors. In many states there are programs with incentives for doctors and other public servants to work for a few years in areas which are lacking in those services. Often the incentive is a significant school loan pay off, housing allowances, child care etc. There needs to be similar incentives given to attorneys who work in the public sector as prosecutors or public defenders. As you may imagine the domino effect in terms of community safety is significant. If there are not enough lawyers, the criminal justice system will not function effectively. When cases cannot be effectively prosecuted criminals are not held accountable and the safety of the community is compromised. To be a criminal prosecutor is not for the faint of heart. But it is an immensely rewarding and satisfying career in the long run —despite the challenges.
My team and I have committed ourselves to the rights of victims and public safety and will continue to do so. I will continue to be accessible and active in the community as the constructive and clarifying conversations that come out of community engagement, have been so helpful to me in helping me guide policies — be it in the schools, with veterans, in senior centers and supporting the work of organizations in the community such as Haven House, Valencia County Shelter Services, Roberta’s Place, MADD, Trunk or Treat and Sunday Funday, Cibola County Clean up, National Night Out and more. I said when I took office that “I intend for this office to be seen as a value to the community, not just something that puts bad guys in jail,” and I stand by that commitment. This is true not only for me but for my staff as well. On any given weekend you will find members of my staff serving their communities in many ways.
I will continue to build on the foundation of the first three years and fight for the resources we need to effectively do our job. I will extend and broaden our diversion services to focus on the needs of veterans as well as others. The 13th is quickly becoming the ideal training office for new prosecutors. The 13th is short staffed. It is not short on dedication, loyalty, ethics, professionalism, passion, skills or cohesiveness in our mission of seeking justice.