N.M. spends tens of millions more every year on prosecutors than public defenders

DAs also call on lawmakers to better fund their opponents

By: - November 20, 2023 4:30 am
Three people in formal attire sit at a round table. A man on the left holds up a stack of papers and speaks, while the woman in the middle and another man on the right watch him speak.

Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman (left) is asking for the biggest budget increase of any elected prosecutor in New Mexico. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

New Mexico spends tens of millions of dollars more every year on prosecutors pursuing criminal cases against people than it does on public defenders, according to records newly released by the state’s Legislature.

The statewide picture of funding for local district attorneys’ offices illustrates a longstanding disparity of resources between them and their opponents in court.

To get a sense of how much public funding goes to the agencies prosecuting criminal laws in New Mexico, Source NM reviewed the budget requests handed in this fall by all 14 local DA’s offices across the state. This was necessary because prosecutors have not yet turned in a unified, statewide budget priority document, though a cover letter on one of their appropriation requests indicated they would.

Documents show for this year’s budget, prosecutors have more than $103 million to work with.

That is 30% more than the Law Offices of the Public Defender’s annual budget, which totals $71.7 million.

Taken together, prosecutors are asking state lawmakers to increase their budgets next year by 9.5% to a total of $116 million. Public defenders, on the other hand, are asking for $86.6 million. Even if lawmakers approve both sides’ requests, prosecutors would still get 25% more money overall.

Prosecutors or their budget experts formally asked for the money during a two-and-a-half hour hearing on Thursday in Santa Fe before the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), the group of lawmakers who control the state’s budget.

Their reasons for spending more money vary widely. Some said they need to hire more victims’ advocates and investigators, others want more paralegals, and still more need new software to keep track of cases.

Prosecutors’ offices have about 334 attorneys working for them, according to their comments to lawmakers and their organizational charts, cover letters and caseload statistics included in their written requests.

That’s fewer than the 349 public defenders in the state. However, to actually handle all the cases they’re assigned, the public defender’s office said in its budget proposal it would need at least 897 public defenders, based on a workload study by the American Bar Association.

Researchers looked at how much time public defenders should spend on each case to meet the minimum standards for legal representation.

New Mexico does not have enough legal public defenders

On the other side, half of the district attorneys are asking to create a total of 40 new prosecutor positions. The rest are not asking to create new positions, but many are seeking more money to be able to entice people to become prosecutors in rural parts of New Mexico.

In absolute dollar amounts, the biggest request comes from Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman, who is asking for an additional $5.5 million and 20 additional prosecutors in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city.

If lawmakers approve his request, his annual budget will grow to $38.1 million, larger than the entire budgets of some smaller towns in the state like, for example, Española ($11.9 million), Lovington ($19 million), Portales ($22 million) and Grants ($33.1 million).

“If you give me more prosecutors, it will make a difference, because it already is making a difference,” Bregman said. “You don’t turn crime on a dime. It’s not a speedboat, it’s a ship.”

The smallest request comes from 10th Judicial District Attorney Timothy Rose, who is asking for an additional $37,000 to bring his overall budget to $2.1 million. His district in eastern New Mexico includes Quay, Harding, and De Baca Counties.

Rose’s office has four prosecutors, and he isn’t asking for any more, according to his written request. He plans to use the extra money to raise the salaries for a vacant deputy district attorney job and a vacant office manager gig.

Rose asked another elected prosecutor, 13th Judicial District Attorney Barbara Romo, to present his budget on his behalf because he couldn’t attend the hearing.

“The 10th district is doing fine and currently capable of handling our business in the next fiscal year with a flat budget,” Romo said.

Disparity between prosecution and defense

On Wednesday, Thomas Joseph Clear III, chair of the state’s Public Defender Commission, cautioned the LFC that the state’s criminal legal system is “a three-legged stool”: the judicial branch (judges and court staff), law enforcement (police and district attorneys), and public defense.

“They need to be funded pretty much equally,” Clear said.

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur told LFC on Wednesday there are far too many clients for his attorneys to handle, to the point where people accused of crimes are losing out on their constitutional rights to adequate defense and due process.

For example, Baur pointed to Bregman’s decision in September to assign his attorneys to prosecute retail theft, taking over for police officers who used to handle those cases.

“Every hour that they spend is probably at least an hour that increases the public defender need, so we would have to at least be able to match whatever (full-time employees) they would add,” Baur said. “And contractors as well, because in a lot of those cases, if it’s a conspiracy case, by definition there’s more than one defendant, and so we would have to pay a contractor as well.”

Bregman and Fifth Judicial District Attorney Dianna Luce told the LFC on Thursday they agree public defenders need more money.

“I want you to give as much money to the public defenders as they need, your honor — I mean, Mr. Chairman,” Bregman told Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup). “But I mean that, I really do. I think the only way our criminal justice system works is if everybody is funded appropriately, and it has to be that way. I want you to do whatever you can to help the public defender’s office.”

The judicial branch also needs to be funded, Bregman said, to allow for more preliminary hearings and more grand juries.

“We can’t do our job if we don’t have defense attorneys on the other side,” Luce said. “We know they’re short-staffed.”

“I would ask for whatever you can do to help the infrastructure overall for the courts, for the public defenders, for the labs, (the Office of the Medical Investigator), to help us get cases to trial, and get them done timely,” she said.


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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.