NMCDLA Releases Statement on Race and the Legal System

The New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (NMCDLA) joins in the national protest demanding meaningful change in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. We join the public and our leaders across the nation declaring, “Enough is enough.”

Defense attorneys are on the frontlines together with our clients fighting systemic racism every day in the criminal legal system. We know that the legal system is permeated by racial inequities – from who is arrested, who gets prosecuted, who is convicted, the length of sentences meted out, to opportunities for second chances after a jail or prison sentence. Statistics bear this out across the United States as well as right here in New Mexico, where Black, Hispanic, and Native peoples are all significantly overrepresented in jails and prisons. 

We support New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s formation of an advisory Council for Racial Justice to monitor state institutions and hold them accountable for ending systemic racism and assuring that all persons receive fair and equal treatment and opportunities.  We are at a critical time in our nation’s history where we must examine the criminal legal system and challenge the inequities. We must act now to solve the racial inequities underlying the system of mass incarceration in order to achieve “liberty and justice for all.”

NMCDLA seeks adoption of the following policies to create a more just system:

Lapel Cams: We support body worn (lapel) cameras for law enforcement agencies statewide during all interactions with the public. As we have seen in recent cases, video evidence is critical to addressing police violence but also protects law enforcement when falsely accused.

Data and Racial Impact: We support state legislation to standardize, compile, and analyze trends from arrests, prosecutions, and sentencing at the local, county, and state level. The quality of race and ethnicity data in New Mexico’s criminal legal system is inconsistent. Racial and ethnic impact statements should be part of all criminal justice legislation so that elected officials are guided by an informed analysis of current and proposed policies.

Equal Access: We support equal access to the courts no matter an individual’s race, religion, culture, sex, gender, age, economic or legal status. Our community suffers when individuals, including undocumented persons, are hesitant to participate in the justice system due to the threatening presence of law enforcement and immigration authorities. All members of our community deserve the protections of the courts whether as a victim, a witness, or a defendant.

Prison Conditions: We believe solitary confinement is harmful and should be banned in New Mexico. In 2019, we worked with partners to pass the Restricted Housing Act, a law that requires data collection on the use of solitary confinement. Data shows it is used disproportionately.  People of color are placed in solitary confinement more frequently and for longer periods of time. 

Drug policy: We support an end to the practice of incarcerating people for simple possession of drugs and for technical violations of probation or parole. Legislative Finance Council found one third of the New Mexico Corrections Department population is incarcerated for a technical violation. Often this is for a failed drug test or missed appointment with a probation officer. Incarceration is not the answer for addiction.  The threat of COVID-19 has highlighted the health hazards of overcrowding in the prisons.  Rather than criminalizing this behavior, we must effectively address the root causes of substance abuse.

Qualified Immunity: We support ending the qualified immunity doctrine that prevents police from being held legally accountable when they break the law. If qualified immunity no longer applied to law enforcement, cities would have stronger incentives to adopt policies that limit abuses of power by the police.

NMCDLA will continue to fight for a fair and effective criminal justice in the courts, the legislature and in the community. Now is the time to demand action.