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San Juan County is piloting the new court program

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FARMINGTON — A new tool to help assess the risk posed by criminal defendants has been deployed to a San Juan County magistrate court to help judges identify cases which might pose a higher risk to the community than others and require more pretrial supervision.

The Aztec Magistrate Court on Feb. 1 started piloting a new system to provide information to judges about defendants, including a public safety assessment and background checks when criminal charges could result in jail or prison time.

The system was announced in a New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts press release.

Eleventh Judicial District Court Executive Officer Weldon Neff, Chief District Court Judge Karen Townsend and Programs Division Director of Problem-Solving Courts Krista Lawrence spoke to The Daily Times about what court officials have been working on since July.

"Our pretrial goals (are) to maximize public safety and law-abiding behavior for a pretrial defendant," Lawrence said. "Maximize release of defendants, minimize pretrial detention and maximize court appearances."

There have been a number of changes in the state judicial system following a Nov. 8, 2016, general election where more than 87 percent of state residents were in favor of a constitutional amendment.

That amendment led the New Mexico Supreme Court to create new rules to guide pretrial detention and release for defendants.

It gave judges new rules to hold people in jail without bond as they await trial and grant pretrial release to defendants who pose no risk to the community.

The Public Safety Assessment (PSA) evaluates a defendant using nine risk factors to determine the likelihood of new criminal activity by defendants and a future failure to appear for court, according to Lawrence.

"It gives us as judges more information, so we don't release somebody we shouldn't," Townsend said.

Those factors include if it was a violent crime, if they had other pending charges at time of arrest, if the defendant has had prior felony or violent crime convictions and how many times the defendant failed to appear at court hearings in the last two years.

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"This tool, and introduction of legal and evidence-based practices, is going to provide the community a safer and fairer pre-trial system as opposed to the bond system, which was more indicative of (a catch and release system)," Lawrence said.

The PSA also gives a score between one and six to predict the likelihood an individual will commit a new crime and will fail to return for a court hearing.

A Pretrial Monitoring Level is assigned to each defendant, As the defendant's threat level increases, the level of supervision provided increases also, Lawrence said.

All the information is provided to the judges before a defendant makes their first appearance or arraignment in magistrate court.

Judges are also provided a background investigation report which lists a summary of a defendant's criminal history including prior cases and pending cases.

As part of the pilot, the judicial district got funding for four positions, including two pretrial officers to supervise defendants on pretrial release and two employees who solely produced background check reports.

Judge Townsend cited a number of studies which showed if a defendant is arrested for a low-level crime and is incarcerated for a significant amount of time, it encourages them to commit more crimes.

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"So they get a fourth-degree felony and are in jail for six months, they lose their job, they lose their car, they lose their home," Townsend said. "They are probably more likely to go out and commit another crime."

The additional information provided to judges does not limit their discretion to hold dangerous defendants in jail without bond pending trial.

There were 268 defendants jailed pending trial in the 11th Judicial District Court between July 2017 and July 2019, according to data provided by Townsend. A total of 2,100 defendants statewide were held without bond in the same time period.

The new tools are set to be implemented at Farmington Magistrate Court in the future, when additional resources from the Administrator Office of the Courts are deployed.

Farmington Magistrate Court has a larger case load than Aztec's, according to Lawrence.

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Joshua Kellogg covers breaking news for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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