In a state often lacking statesmanship, two crime-fighters are emerging who are giving us hope.
Listening to Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman and Attorney General Raúl Torrez talk about crime, you wouldn’t know they’re Democrats. Or Republicans, or independents or anything else for that matter.
Pinch-hitting for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham at Thursday’s NAIOP New Mexico event, Bregman said his office recently changed policies that are making a difference. Few New Mexicans outside law enforcement likely knew that police officers had been prosecuting shoplifting cases in Metropolitan Court. And their conviction rates were abysmal, only about 15%.
Bregman said the old system was being gamed like a Playstation.
“When 85% of the people who are shoplifting have no consequences whatsoever, what do you think they’re gonna do?” Bregman asked business leaders last week. “They’re gonna keep shoplifting, right? From now on, there will not be a shoplifting case in Bernalillo County which we are not prosecuting.”
Asked at an Editorial Board meeting in July if he worried that low-level shoplifters would get caught up in organized retail crime stings, Bregman emphatically responded, “No.”
“It’s not a concern of mine,” he continued in his usual frank manner. “This community is so … pissed off about retail crime that we’re going to do something about it.”
And he has.
Bregman has hired 40 prosecutors since becoming DA in January and wants to have 20 more in the coming months. With a beefed up staff, the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office has prosecuted 59 shoplifting cases in Metropolitan Court since the beginning of September.
“It’s so destructive to businesses — small and large businesses — but it’s also damn scary for anybody in the store to see shoplifting going on right in front of them,” Bregman also told business leaders last week. “It’s extremely troubling, and it tears at the fibers of this community in every single way.”
Good for Bregman. Getting tough on crime is going to require tough prosecutors who are more interested in holding criminals accountable than holding their hands.
Bregman says, and has shown, he’s also going to hold teens accountable in shootings. Local support for him is growing, and apparent from Journal readers.
“Old lawyers know good lawyers; old prosecutors know good prosecutors,” Reid Griffith of Albuquerque wrote in a recent letter to the editor. “This old lawyer/prosecutor knows that Sam Bregman is a good lawyer and a good prosecutor.”
Bregman’s no-nonsense approach, bolstered by decades of courtroom experience, is going over well with many in Albuquerque.
“It is refreshing to actually see someone doing the job they are tasked with doing,” wrote Gary Hays of Albuquerque. “(A)nd Bregman is fulfilling that role. Crime will never be diminished until we punish those who commit it. Good job, Sam.”
AG Torrez is making strides at the state level, not by engaging in never-ending discussions about the root causes of crime, but by building bipartisan coalitions to actually tackle crime.
“We have fallen into this trap in this country, and we’re doing it in this community, where we pick the biggest lightning rod that divides people, and they retreat to their corners,” Torrez said at a crime summit of law enforcement and prosecutors he convened late last month at the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. “And that conversation becomes so charged, that we’re not able to come back and find some common ground and some common sense.”
Sheriffs, police chiefs, prosecutors and district attorneys from across the state suggested solutions during the Sept. 26 summit that include harsher juvenile punishment, more youth programs to keep them out of trouble, stiffer sentences for those found armed in a drug crime, and more drug treatment.
AG Torrez wants to make state courts work more like federal courts, which have high conviction rates, mandatory sentences, harsher penalties for violent offenders and aren’t prone to releasing dangerous defendants before trial. For example, the feds have a mandatory 5-year minimum jail sentence for any crime when a firearm is involved.
“Knowing there will be a penalty has a powerful impact on the system,” Torrez said. “We need the political wherewithal to change.”
Bregman suggests New Mexico lawmakers add an enhancement of a mandatory 1-year in jail for any drug charge where a gun is involved. That’s a solid idea.
Violent crime in Albuquerque is a scourge because criminals as young as their early teens are frequently using guns in the commission of crimes, not because a bunch of steel parts have been assembled into a weapon they’re not legally allowed to hold anyway.
State lawmakers need to take heed and fix the statutes that allow first-degree murder defendants to escape a life sentence simply by saying they were high at the time, and statutes that dictate the dismissal of misdemeanor charges when someone is found incompetent to stand trial.
Two things stood out the most and were repeated throughout Torrez’s 3-hour summit:
1. Law enforcement needs help from state lawmakers to fix the crime problem, and
2. We need to change the growing negative perception of law enforcement to retain and recruit new officers.
San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari said his patrol division has operated 35% understaffed for the past two years. Doña Ana County Sheriff Kim Stewart says stiffer penalties in state law would be the single most helpful tool to reduce crime in New Mexico.
Legislators have the power to fix many of the problems that plague our state’s judicial system. We don’t have enough prosecutors, enough cops on the street, enough judges willing to be stern on crime, or enough mandatory jail sentences.
Law enforcement has clearly spelled out to legislators what needs to be done. Whether or not they listen and take meaningful action will determine if New Mexico is a crime-ridden state people want to stay away from, or a state that embraces law and order and fosters economic growth and prosperity for all.