Public Defenders Facing Constitutional Crisis

Feb 6, 2017

Public defenders are strapped for cash, and some are saying things are so tight, it’s creating a constitutional crisis for New Mexicans facing charges. The Public Defenders Office made its case for more funding at the Roundhouse on Monday.

In some New Mexico districts, public defenders are representing two or three times the number of people that they should. That’s what Michael Stout of the Public Defender Commission told the Senate Finance Committee.  "And obviously they cannot do it. It’s a physical impossibility to do that," he said. "The numbers don’t add up."

That means there’s not just an issue of the state not providing good enough representation, but in some circumstances, there’s no lawyer present at stages where a defendant has the constitutional right to an attorney.

"If the state of New Mexico cannot afford to defend a case, then the state of New Mexico cannot afford to prosecute that case," Stout said.

Dismissing a case because of these problems is the last thing any judge wants to do, Stout said, but those arguments are being made in court.

There are 92 vacant positions at the public defender’s offices around the state, roughly half support staff and half attorneys.