Few people commit crimes while being watched before trial, early data show

Almost no one willfully violates ankle monitor rules, court officials say

By: - July 28, 2022 4:00 am

 LFC analysts found that arrests for violent crimes among pretrial defendants accounted for only 5% of the total arrests for violent crimes by the Albuquerque Police Department between 2019 and 2021. (Photo by Mario Tama / Getty Images)

Most New Mexicans ordered to wear an ankle monitor while they await trial on criminal charges do not go on to commit another offense, according to the latest info.

In fact, the new statewide pretrial GPS tracking system so far shows that almost all alerts generated by ankle monitors result in nothing serious enough to justify a bench warrant which once issued by a judge, police can treat as an arrest warrant.

The Administrative Office of the Courts formed a 15-person team to keep an eye on ankle monitors and improve surveillance on behalf of courts around the state, said Celia Perry, manager of the Statewide Pretrial Program.

The Electronic Monitoring and Supervision Unit, launched in October, is observing people waiting for their day in court across four jurisdictions so far: 

  • The Third Judicial District, including Las Cruces 
  • The Sixth Judicial District, in the far southwest corner of the state, encompassing Grant, Luna and Hidalgo Counties
  • Part of the 11th — San Juan County in the northwest
  • Part of the 13th — Sandoval County, which includes Rio Rancho

The office takes over pretrial surveillance for those courts when they close overnight, on weekends and holidays, or during inclement weather.

Poor supervision on weekends and holidays was an issue Bernalillo County’s District Attorney Raúl Torrez raised last year when he built his argument to roll back criminal legal reforms in N.M. that did away with the cash bail system and lessened jail overcrowding, leaving the choice of whether to incarcerate someone before a trial entirely in the hands of judges.

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Between October and June 30, there were about 3,595 cases closed for people who were being tracked, said Gilbert Jaramillo, an analyst for the courts.

According to Jaramillo: 

  • In 77% of those cases, people showed up to all of their court hearings
  • In 86% of those cases, they did not pick up any new charges 
  • In 95% of those cases, they did not pick up any new violent charges

That early info falls in line with previous research into crime and arrest numbers between 2019 and 2021 from the Legislative Finance Committee.

Analysts there found that arrests for violent crimes among pretrial defendants accounted for only 5% of the total arrests for violent crimes by the Albuquerque Police Department.

That means 95% of those pretrial defendants — who have not yet been convicted of anything in court — did not pick up any new violent charges.

Backing up that finding, a University of New Mexico study showed the same percentages for a different time frame for all of New Mexico: Between 2017 and 2020, 95% of people facing felony charges who were released before their trials did not go on to get arrested for a violent crime.

Lawmakers reviewed the fresh pretrial data on Monday during a hearing of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

Legislators passed a law earlier this year that laid out a framework for statewide GPS tracking, and committee co-chairs Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) and Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) held Monday’s hearing in part to evaluate how it’s playing out so far.

Rep. Christine Trujillo (D-Albuquerque) asked about defendants who take off their ankle monitors.

Public Defender Kim Chavez Cook said there is no technological way to design an ankle monitor that is 100% tamper-proof.

“But certainly, I think it’s difficult enough currently that only an extremely motivated person is going to do it,” she said, “and that’s why that number is as low as it is.”

Whenever a defendant removes the ankle monitor or allows it to run out of battery, the new surveillance unit notifies the judge in the case, who can issue a bench warrant for that person’s arrest, Jaramillo said. To protect victims in those cases, the unit at the Administrative Office of the Courts also contacts them or local police, he said, until a bench warrant is issued.

Between October and June, in the state’s busiest courts in the Albuquerque area and Las Cruces, the Electronic Monitoring and Supervision unit investigated 22,335 ankle monitor alerts, and asked judges for bench warrants for 69 of those defendants, Perry said.

Of those alerts, 44 were because the battery in the ankle monitor died, 14 were because defendants removed the devices, and five were for curfew violations, one was for a violation of an order not to travel outside a city or state, and five were because of exclusion zone violations. An exclusion zone is a geographic area where a defendant is not allowed while under pretrial surveillance, like schools, parks or someone’s home.

“As you can see, a number of the alerts that are investigated do not result in any type of willful violation on the part of the defendant,” Jaramillo said. “Maybe there was an issue with the equipment. Or oftentimes, as an example, a defendant may not be aware of a zone that they’re not allowed to be in.”

When a defendant passes through an area like that, the surveillance unit is trained to immediately notify them and tell them to leave, Jaramillo said.

The effort to keep more people in jail before trial hits a wall in the Legislature

By October, the office plans to expand the pretrial surveillance system through San Juan, McKinley, Santa Fe, Grant, Luna and Hidalgo Counties.

Easy for police and prosecutors to get GPS data

Marcus Montoya, president of the New Mexico District Attorneys Association, implied at the meeting that the new law makes it difficult for prosecutors and police to see GPS data. 

“I don’t know how this impacts our ability to obtain the data, if we’re going to try to revoke a defendant’s release for violating an exclusion zone,” Montoya said.

The new law actually makes it easy for prosecutors to get that info, Cervantes said.

When legislators were still considering the law, the association opposed part of the legislation that deals with electronic monitoring on the grounds that prosecutors and police do not have “clear guidance” on whether they can obtain GPS data from an ankle monitor.

The law specifies prosecutors and police shall have access to the GPS data, and all they need to do to get it is to say they have “reasonable suspicion” — the lowest standard of proof in criminal law — that the information may be useful in a pending criminal investigation. They don’t even need a warrant.

“Boy, that’s about as low a bar as you can get,” Cervantes said. “We could not have made this any easier for law enforcement and prosecutors.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.