The Roosevelt County District Attorney’s Office has been so cramped for space that at one point employees there used an area near the kitchen sink to file their cases.
A similar shortage of personnel and funds for the district attorney’s office are allowing criminals, especially drug offenders, to receive light sentences and thus get released back into the community sooner than expected, local law enforcements officials said at a Roosevelt County Crime Stoppers special meeting on Tuesday.
“We may have a case that we put a lot of time and effort into, a lot of blood sweat and tears to get something done … and they (suspected criminals) go before a judge and get (sentenced to) less than what we all expected and much less than what we’re happy with,” Portales Police Capt. Lonnie Berry said.
Lack of personnel in the office have led to plea bargains that aren’t as tough as local law enforcement officers have desired, Berry added.
The local Crime Stoppers group planned the meeting to discuss the issues with 9th Judicial District Attorney Brett Carter, who said lack of office space, less-than-adequate funding from the state and felony crimes that have almost doubled since 2001 have hampered his ability to fight crime through the courts.
Carter said ideally the DA’s office needs to expand large enough to allow four more offices. And funding from the state needs to be enough to hire personnel to handle the increasing crime rate.
Roosevelt County is mandated to allocate space for the DA’s office, which is scheduled for minor remodeling in the near future.
But Roosevelt County Administrator Charlene Hardin said it’s difficult to allocate funds to the DA’s office when more pressing tabs keep piling up.
“We’re trying, it’s not like we aren’t doing anything, but we have other issues that we need money for from the Legislature,” Hardin said. “It’s not as easy to get that money as everybody thinks.”
Carter said this year the senate approved a $100,000 budget increase for the 9th Judicial District DA’s office, but Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed the bill. Carter also noted that similar-size districts near Santa Fe will often receive more state money because politicians from those districts spend more time lobbying in the state capital.
Currently the only assistant DA in the Portales office is Donna Mowrer, but another assistant DA will start work on Dec. 1. Five attorneys work in the Clovis office, and Carter is seeking to hire one more there as well. Each attorney has nearly 500 open cases, Carter said. And with a starting salary below $35,000, Carter said recruitment of new attorneys can be difficult.
He said after Dec. 1, however, harsher sentences should ensue for Roosevelt County offenders.
“It should make for harsher sentences now that there’s two people taking the same number of cases that Donna (Mowrer) has been taking on her own,” Carter said.
Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said drug sentencing statewide is also getting light, which is adding to light sentencing for drug crimes.
“If you look at the punishment for marijuana use it’s basically legal now,” Ingle said.
Possession of marijuana less than one ounce is considered a petty misdemeanor. By comparison, the Portales City Council adopted an ordinance on Tuesday that would make not returning a library book a petty misdemeanor.
Like every district, however, sentencing comes down to the district judges.
District Judge Joe Parker, who was sworn in at the end of September, tends to be the toughest, and according to Carter more often than not gives the maximum sentence.
By contrast, District Judge Ted Hartley tends to want to work with criminals, especially drug and substance abusers, Carter said.