SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s chief public defender on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to shore up resources for attorneys that represent impoverished defendants and consider reducing penalties for some low-level offenses that carry the possibility of jail time.
Chief Public Defender Bennett Baurasked a panel of lawmakers to take steps to ensure public defense attorneys are not overwhelmed by caseloads. The New Mexico Supreme Court is considering whether poor defendants are being left without adequate defense.
Baur outlined a request for a 13 percent budget increase for the fiscal year beginning in June 2018 for the state’s Law Offices of the Public Defender, designed in part to ensure public defenders can attend crucial initial court appearances and provide clients with legal advice.
In many rural areas, defense attorneys often are too busy to attend first appearances on criminal charges, Baur said. In those situations, defendants must fend for themselves in front of prosecutors and judges.
The agency also wants authorization to pay contract attorneys by the hour rather than a set rate for each case, describing the current payment system as a barrier to providing adequate legal representation.
Baur said contract attorneys receive a flat, $700 payment to represent clients charged with a first-degree felony. The amount covers work from initial court appearances through trials, periods that that can last months.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said the amount provided virtually guarantees that poor defendants do not get the level of service outlined by law.
“When we see the dollar amounts, I just don’t see how anyone is getting adequate representation,” Wirth said.
Baur urged members of the courts, corrections and justice committee to revive legislation to reduce penalties for minor offenses so courts focus on more serious crimes.
Democratic Sen. Richard Martinez of Espanola said lawmakers will probably wait until 2019 to attempt reductions in misdemeanor penalties — after a new governor takes office.
Republican Governor and former prosecutor Susana Martinez vetoed legislation this year that would have reduced penalties for long list of misdemeanors.