DA says pleas help victims, save money

CNJ illustration: Sharna Johnson Almost half, 44 percent, of cases closed in fiscal year 2010 in the 9th Judicial District courts were closed through plea agreements. District Attorney Matt Chandler said that translates to a higher percentage of convictions than any other district in the state.

Sharna Johnson

The 9th Judicial District Court in Roosevelt and Curry counties ranks highest in the state for the number of plea agreements made in criminal cases.

In fiscal year 2010, 44 percent of district court cases closed in Curry and Roosevelt counties were plea agreements, compared to a state average of 31 percent, according to data provided by the Administrative Offices of the Courts for the state.

District Attorney Matt Chandler said what those numbers mean is his district is closing a higher rate of cases through convictions than anyone in the state.

“According to the recently released stats by the supreme court, the Ninth Judicial District is more likely, statistically, to obtain a conviction either through trial or a plea than any other district in New Mexico,” he said.

Chandler said there are several good reasons why prosecutors take plea agreements over going to trial.

“In a case in which the evidence of guilt is overwhelming, some defendants recognize they do not have a legitimate defense and enter a plea of guilty. This can provide a faster resolution and spare both the state and defense a costly trial, which would likely end in the same result as a plea of guilty,” he said.

Other times, it may be that the victim wants a case resolved without going through a trial Chandler said, particularly in cases involving domestic violence, sexual crimes and crimes against children.

“It’s particularly difficult for a 6-year-old child to testify about a sexual assault in front of a judge, jury, gallery of spectators, and a criminal defense attorney, not to mention the perpetrator staring at the child from across the room,” he said.

“In a case such as this the state and defense may enter into plea negotiations that avoid re-victimizing the child by putting them through a trial, yet still holds the defendant accountable with prison time albeit, slightly reduced from their maximum exposure.”

Often in plea agreements a defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence than one faced if convicted in a trial.

The second highest number of plea cases occurred in the 11th Judicial District — the third largest district in the state serving San Juan and McKinley counties — with a 38 percent plea rate.

The lowest plea rate of 3 percent took place in the 4th Judicial District which is also the second to smallest in the state, representing Mora, San Miguel and Guadeloupe counties.

The 9th Judicial District represents the eighth-largest population among the state’s 13 districts. Criminal cases filed in district courts are predominately felony-level crimes, with a small percent of caseload being misdemeanors. Meanwhile, county magistrate courts overwhelmingly deal with misdemeanor and traffic cases.

Aside from plea agreements in the 9th Judicial District, 29 percent were cases with new activity on pre-existing convictions, such as probation violations, 21 percent were dismissed, 3 percent went to trial — with 25 of 36 trials resulting in conviction — and the remainder were closed through alternative sentencing, according to a statistical addendum provided by AOC.

Area district court carried an active criminal case load of 2,789 in fiscal year 2010, and closed 50 percent of cases, according to the report.

Data shows that 26 percent of the cases filed in district court were classified as violent crimes with the higher percentage of cases tied to property and drug crimes.

The most recent data, released by the state Administrative Offices of the Courts, represents cases filed during fiscal year 2010, which was measured from July 2009 to June 2010.