By David Irvin
The average case load for prosecutors in the Ninth Judicial District Attorney’s office may be cut by a quarter by July.
Before adjourning on Saturday, the New Mexico Legislature granted the Ninth Judicial District Attorney’s office its request for five additional employees, three of which are prosecutors.
Each prosecutor in the District Attorney’s office currently has an average of 260 pending cases, a press release from the office shows. The new positions will decrease the average case load per prosecutor to under 180, which District Attorney Matthew Chandler said will increase the quality of prosecution in the district.
“I can’t describe how ecstatic we are about the information of the additional positions,” Chandler said. “We lobbied hard this year to increase our staff level, and we owe a big thank you to the representatives that assisted in pushing our requests through the legislative session.”
The new positions will be funded by the State of New Mexico beginning July 1, and Chandler said he hopes to have the positions filled by then. It is the first expansion of personnel for the office in eight years.
Besides improving the quality of prosecution, Chandler said the new positions will also speed up the processing of the cases. The new positions include three prosecutors, one program specialist and one support staff.
“The additional positions will have a very big impact on the time frame in which it takes to resolve a case. The cases will be able to move forward faster,” he said. “Each case will receive more individual attention, which will allow you to take it from arrest to final resolution in a quicker manner.”
Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher said he is hopeful the new positions will speed up the legal process, but said a disparity between the number of prosecutors and the number of public defenders may stifle progress toward that end.
“I look forward to working with the new ones when they get here,” Hatcher said. “I know there’s an imbalance between the district attorney’s office and the public defender’s office; you can’t do one without the other.”
Chief Public Defender Brett Carter concurred. Attorneys in his office are carrying case loads between 300 and 400 right now, Carter said, and he doesn’t yet know if the number of attorneys will increase this year. In part, that’s because the public defender’s office is a centralized organization run out of Santa Fe.
“Both the prosecution as well as the defense side has always been underfunded (in eastern New Mexico),” he said. “(The public defender) budget goes through Santa Fe, so if they add positions, it’s up to Santa Fe to designate where those positions go.”
Chandler said the extra workers will push to the limit the current office space on the third floor of the court house. However, the New Mexico Legislature also allocated $185,000 to renovate and expand Curry County Courthouse or off-site office space for the district attorney’s office.
The county is looking at a couple of different locations to expand the district attorney’s office, county officials said, but the most promising location would be the second floor suite of the post office on Gidding Street.
All capital outlay funds still must signed into law by Gov. Bill Richardson, as well as the bill providing the additional prosecutors to the Ninth Judicial.