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THURS: University Researchers Analyze Pretrial Releases Amid Debate, + More

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  University Researchers Analyze Pretrial Releases Amid Debate- Associated Press

Amid debate over New Mexico's system of releasing felony defendants, University of New Mexico research indicates that just under 5% of Albuquerque-area defendants awaiting trial commit violent crimes while free from jail.


Findings from the university's Institute for Social Research's analysis of more than 10,000 felony cases in Bernalillo County also included that less than 1% of people on pretrial release were arrested for a first-degree felony while on pretrial release, the Albuquerque Journal reported.


A senior state courts official said the research indicates that the vast majority of defendants don’t commit new crimes pending trial but the top prosecutor for Bernalillo County and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham say its still troubling that some defendants commit crimes while free.


Administrative Office of the Courts Director Artie Pepin said the research “validates the pretrial justice improvements underway in New Mexico,."


District Attorney Raul Torrez said through spokeswoman Laura Rodriguez that the few violent crimes committed by people on pretrial release are “an unacceptable price for our community to pay.”


Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said it “can still be utterly devastating to a family or a community” when 5% of felony defendants are arrested for a violent crime on pretrial release.

New Mexico Extends Masking Order As New Cases Trend Downward - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico is on the downslope of the pandemic as the number of new infections has started to decline, state health officials said Wednesday during a virtual briefing. 

Still, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said that community spread remains high across the state — surpassing the benchmark of more than 300 cases a day — and precautions need to be taken to ensure more people don't become infected. That includes extending the state's mask mandate for at least another month in indoor public settings. 

The masking mandate had been set to expire Wednesday. New Mexico in May 2020 was among the first states to require that face coverings be worn in public settings. That order was lifted last May for fully vaccinated people.

"As we're coming off this wave, if it continues, we really need to step back and look at what are the things we can do in the long haul to prevent spread of COVID without having to go back and forth with this on-off switch and mandates, what are some things we can all live with," Scrase said.

Under the current public health order, the mask requirement applies to all people age 2 and older in all indoor public settings, except when eating or drinking. Businesses, houses of worship and other entities may enact stricter requirements at their discretion.

Scrase also renewed his call for people to wash their hands, keep their distance from others and get vaccinated.

The latest data from the New Mexico Department of Health shows just over 69% of residents 18 and older have been fully vaccinated and that vaccination rates are higher among those communities that are considered more socially vulnerable due to poverty, access to health care, language barriers and other factors.

Officials said the state, its medical partners and providers have been working hard to reach those communities.

State data also shows a 37% drop in infections on school campuses in New Mexico compared to the previous week. Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said the agency will be keeping an eye on the numbers over the next two to three weeks to see if the decrease amounts to a trend.

The positivity rate among school staff also has dropped to less than 1% over the past month, according to the data shared by Steinhaus.

He said the state is in the middle of a "full-court press" to make sure in-person learning can continue. Schools are facing an Oct. 1 deadline to submit enhanced COVID-19 safety plans to the state. 

"If you look at the research about how kids learn — and if you're a parent you know this — in-person learning just works better so that will continue to be our focus as move forward," Steinhaus said.

So far, only 30 schools have opted to temporarily shift to remote learning due to an uptick in cases. Those decisions are being made by individual districts, not the Public Education Department, officials said.

Several dozen schools, including charter schools and Bureau of Indian Education schools, have opted into a grant program that funds COVID-19 testing and screening. More than 30,000 staffers and 184,000 students around the state already have been tested through the program.

Conceptual Redistricting Maps Emerge From Citizens Board - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A citizens advisory committee to the New Mexico Legislature on political redistricting is deciding on a set of conceptual maps to circulate for public comment.

The Citizens Redistricting Committee is scheduled to meet on Thursday to select those conceptual maps.

The actual line-drawing will be done by the state's Democrat-led Legislature, which could hew to the commission's recommendations — or ignore the suggestions and use its overwhelming majorities to create districts that help Democrats win elections for years to come.

States, including New Mexico and Indiana, are using citizen advisory boards on redistricting to temper political inclinations without taking powers away from state lawmakers. Judges might wind up using the advisory maps to resolve redistricting lawsuits.

The New Mexico Legislature plans to convene in December to redraw boundaries for the state's three congressional districts, 112 legislative seats and a public education commission that oversees public charter schools.

Proposed adjustments to a congressional swing district in southern New Mexico are under special scrutiny. Last year, U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell ousted a first-term Democrat from the 2nd District seat.

This marks the first time in at least 30 years that the redistricting process in New Mexico has been overseen by both a Democrat-led Legislature and Democratic governor. Republicans control the process in 20 states, including Florida, Texas and North Carolina.

The once-a-decade redistricting process has ramped up with the recent release of 2020 census data showing how populations have changed in neighborhoods, cities and counties since 2010.

U.S. House and state legislative districts must be redrawn to rebalance their populations. But mapmakers can create an advantage for their political party in future elections by packing opponents' voters into a few districts or spreading them thin among multiple districts — a process known as gerrymandering.

Nutrition Aid Surges, Food Banks Brace For Uncertain Future - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Food banks in New Mexico with high rates of childhood poverty and hunger are watching with apprehension as the federal government boosts standard food stamp benefits in October and extends generous emergency allotments temporarily.

President Joe Biden's administration has approved a permanent 25% increase in food aid over pre-pandemic levels, available to all 42 million SNAP beneficiaries across the country. The increase on Oct. 1 coincides with the expiration of a smaller, 15% boost in food-aid benefits that was ordered as a pandemic protection measure.

At the same time, emergency allotments in food aid are continuing in most states, including New Mexico, but will phase out as public health emergency designations eventually come to an end. 

The allotment often doubles standard monthly benefit payments and the eventual expiration threatens to send shock waves through personal and family finances in New Mexico, where more than one-in-four residents depends on the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to help put food on the table.

"We enjoy seeing families — low-income families — being able to access their own food. It's certainly a more dignified and respectful way to get the food that their families need," said Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot that acts as a food bank of last resort for 40,000 people across a sparsely populated area the size of West Virginia.

"The Food Depot is here to help if any of those benefits end or if they need additional help," she said.

She said the pandemic has increased the number of people seeking help with food essentials by about 30% in her territory in northern and eastern New Mexico.

The federal government fully funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, without state matching funds.

New Mexico lawmakers nonetheless funneled $10 million toward emergency food aid during legislative sessions in early 2021 and November 2020, and the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is lobbying for a more robust emergency nutrition package for the coming fiscal year that starts on July 1, 2022.

The pandemic has been accompanied by an unprecedented outpouring of federal assistance designed to limit disruptions in housing, food security and the broader economy. But some direct emergency aid to low-income households is already winding down.

The federal government in early September ended its supplemental unemployment benefit of $300 a week that went out to roughly 50,000 residents. State finance authorities are sprinting to provide rental assistance to people who have fallen behind on payments to landlords, while a statewide eviction moratorium remains in effect for people who can't afford to pay rent.

On the food-aid front, about 540,000 people were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as of August, across a state with 2.1 million residents, according to the Human Services Department that administers federal nutritional benefits.

Agency spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis-Port says the average household SNAP benefit of $237 in July 2019 increased to $477 in July 2021 — and will nudge higher in October.

Tesla Builds 1st Store On Tribal Land, Dodges State Car Laws - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press/Report For America

Carmaker Tesla has opened a store and repair shop on Native American land for the first time, marking a new approach to its yearslong fight to sell cars directly to consumers and cut car dealerships out of the process.

The white-walled, silver-lettered Tesla store, which opened last week, sits in Nambé Pueblo, north of Santa Fe, on tribal land that's not subject to state laws. 

The electric car company can only sell and service its vehicles freely in about a dozen states, while it faces restrictions in others. Some, like New Mexico, ban Tesla from offering sales or repairs without going through a dealership. In January, the company struck a deal with Michigan to resolve a 2016 lawsuit, a symbolic victory that allowed it to sell in the backyard of the nation's largest carmakers.

Supporters of Tesla say the shop in New Mexico marks the first time the company has partnered with a tribe to get around state laws, though the idea has been in the works for years.

From Oklahoma to Connecticut and other states, consumers can't buy Teslas because the company won't partner with dealerships and hasn't been successful in winning over the courts or lawmakers to allow its direct sales model. 

"These states have lots of sovereign Native American nations in them that could be interested in Tesla," said Brian Dear, president of the Tesla Owners Club of New Mexico. "I don't believe at all that this will be the last."

Supporters say dealership laws protect middle-class jobs and force dealerships to compete, lowering prices. Critics say people can get information online and direct sales would lower costs.

New Mexico, Alabama, and Louisiana have the strictest bans, barring Tesla from both operating dealerships and repair shops. That makes repairing a Tesla more expensive and more of a hassle. Owners have to get their cars serviced in neighboring states or through traveling Tesla technicians who fix problems with what they have in a van. 

The New Mexico Tesla shop, built on the site of a former casino, is nestled between two gas stations along a highway about an hour and a half north of Albuquerque, where most of the state's Tesla owners live, Dear said. 

While sales are prohibited in neighboring Texas — where the company plans to make its pickup trucks next year — repair shops are allowed. New Mexico Tesla owners have been traveling to El Paso, Texas, or other out-of-state cities to get repairs.

To buy a Tesla, they have to drive hours to pick them up or pay thousands of dollars to have them shipped.

"We drove a gas car — Volvo station wagon — to Denver and then I was the 'lucky one' who got to drive the gas-powered car back," said Howard Coe, a filmmaker who works for a laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, about 30 minutes from Nambé and about five hours from the nearest Colorado Tesla store.

Coe drove his wife's Tesla sedan to the new store in Nambé on Tuesday to ask if an SUV he ordered can be delivered there. The store told him it's not accepting deliveries for the foreseeable future and won't do repairs until later this month.

Tribal officials who brokered the deal over a two-year period say it lines up with business interests and cultural values like caring for the environment.

The tribe "has the responsibility to the land where we have resided for over 1,000 years," said Carlos Vigil, president of the Nambé Pueblo Development Corporation, calling Tesla's service center "a renewable business that lines up with our belief system."

Car dealership advocates say they respect the tribe's decision but that they hope customers will buy electric cars from companies that follow state rules, arguing dealerships compete to lower prices and can service vehicles in more parts of the state.

"We have competition, we have the expertise, we're in your local communities," said Ken Ortiz, president of the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association. "We contribute to the taxes."

New Mexico has tax treaties with the tribe for sales, gambling and gasoline taxes. But tribal and state officials say it's unclear if Tesla will have to pay vehicle sales taxes or how the revenue would be split between them. 

Tesla, which dissolved its public relations department and generally doesn't answer media inquiries, did not respond to a request for comment. 

In response to a Tweet complaining of wait times in the Northeast last month, CEO Elon Musk wrote, "Tesla will expedite service center openings."

Navajo Nation Reports 45 More COVID-19 Cases, 5 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 45 more COVID-19 cases and five additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 33,338 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,426 known deaths from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

Navajo officials are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel. 

Officials said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. 

Any worker who does not show proof of vaccination by Sept. 29 must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Groups Ask US To Consider Extreme Heat In Border Policies - Associated Press

Human rights groups are calling on the Biden administration to consider the effects that climate change-fueled heat has on migrants when designing the government's border policies. 

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday released the letter sent by 68 groups to the U.S. government, urging a new approach to actions on the southwestern border after this summer's deadly heat. 

The Southwest has become one of the fastest warming regions in the U.S. as climate change increasingly wreaks havoc on the environment, ramping up heat waves, hurricanes and wildfires.

The letter says U.S. policies limiting entry to migrants who hope to apply for asylum can prompt them to make risky journeys through dangerous areas. 

The groups mentioned the August deaths of a female migrant and her 10-year-old daughter in the desert west of Yuma, Arizona as highs reached 119 F. Border officials found a 2-year-old boy alongside the bodies. 

In southwestern Arizona, a new report by the nonprofit Humane Borders and the Pima County Medical Examiner's office says that the remains of 19 migrants were found in the Arizona borderlands in July, bringing the annual total number of recoveries for 2021 thus far to 146.