Signs for Pepita Redhair, Jamie Yazzie, Ella Mae Begay and others line the front of the stage at a MMIWR rally in Albuquerque. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)
Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives have reasons to be excited that a bill expanding law enforcement support for their cases is a signature away from becoming law.
But even if Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs the legislation and grants the Attorney General’s Office authority to investigate and prosecute these incidents, reality will soon hit that it’s going to take time to establish services.
Albuquerque attorney Darlene Gomez works with eight different families as an advocate to assist with their MMIWR cases. She said people are ecstatic about the possibility of a new law, asking when they can get help with billboards, prayer circles or flyers.
She has to taper their expectations about what can happen and how quickly.
“What I’m trying to say is look, this is going to happen at some point, but I can’t guarantee you the timeframe,” Gomez said.
There are also questions about process and accountability. “Some of my concerns are how are we going to enforce it? And what kind of accountability is going to be set for the AG’s Office, police departments, tribal governments?,” she said. “How does this bill allow people to be held accountable for their inactions or actions?”
First things first. The governor has to sign the bill into law before March 9, or it’s automatically vetoed.
If that happens, the AG’s Office will have to hire someone to take on MMIWR duties. The bill specifies the attorney general will, “employ one or more missing Indigenous persons specialists,” so it’s unclear at this point how many people will be part of creating the unit from the ground up.
The task list is long for a specialist. The responsibilities include:
- evaluating existing data to set benchmarks
- compiling reports of Indigenous missing persons cases awaiting entry into the national database
- conducting public outreach
- providing technical assistance to law enforcement on ways to share data and cooperatively use resources
- facilitating training and assisting with alerts on new missing persons cases
That’s a lot for one person to take on, Gomez said.
“I don’t believe only one specialist can handle it. I think we’re looking at more like five people to 10 people minimum working these cases,” she said.
Since the responsibilities for the specialist would be a change in New Mexico statute, the state could avoid the heavy lift of creating legal agreements between every tribal nation, local police and prosecutorial agencies.
Mark Probasco, an attorney with the AG’s Office, said that was not only a recommendation from the state’s MMIWR Task Force but also something that can accelerate how quickly the specialist can begin taking on cases.
Agreements can be helpful, he said, “but we have so many police agencies, so many prosecutor agencies, and we have 23 sovereign tribes within the state of New Mexico.”
Still, Gomez points out,, jurisdiction can always be contested if a federal agency wants to supersede the state law.
“I do feel like there’s going to be jurisdictional issues because I think in order to tell the federal government that we’re going to take over an investigation, that’s going to have to occur by someone at the federal government level allowing that,” she said.
Federal officials are championing a coordinated effort, so supporters of the legislation are expecting a good relationship while getting this unit up.
Probasco said New Mexico’s proposal is modeled after Hanna’s Act, a law passed in 2019 by Montana. So far, there have not been significant jurisdictional clashes between the state and federal government since that law was passed.
The AG’s Office hopes to begin alleviating those tensions in New Mexico.
The system as it exists today is unjust, Probasco said, and basically two-tiered because of the jurisdictional question that leads to delays or straight failure to get prosecutions off the ground. Tribal judicial systems are also limited in their ability to prosecute violent crimes, and while some work has been done to grant greater authority, the resource-strapped federal system is the only option.
“You don’t have a reasonable expectation of justice based off your status or who you are, where you come from,” he said. “That is not an appropriate outcome for the criminal justice system.”
While the specialist is building capacity to operate, the AG’s Office will also have to form the “partnership in Native American communities network grant program,” designed to distribute up to $1 million in grants for Tribes to develop training and criteria that will create a uniform system to report missing persons cases.
The money is appropriated through the Consumer Settlement Fund that is operated by the AG’s Office.
It’s clear there will be substantial work to be done if this bill is signed into law. Probasco and Gomez each agree that the biggest move is the first step.
Santa Fe didn’t move on the bill until the final days of the legislative session, but it was eventually passed unanimously with less than 24 hours to go.
“It is incredibly difficult for, especially bills that touch on criminal justice, to get traction, to get heard by every committee, to get heard by the floor,” Probasco said.
The Legislative Finance Committee also supported the proposal in its public safety recommendation ahead of the session. ”There wasn’t a whole lot of room for disagreement… t It’s sort of common sense. We need to be doing what will ensure effective coordination, and what this bill addresses is a coordination problem.”
Despite the long timeline for rollout in front of them, Gomez is still celebrating with her clients and will watch with crucial optimism.
“I think the bill is a fabulous start for New Mexico,” she said. “I think it’s rooted in positivity. It has the bones that we need to get this going.”
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