Victims' Rights in New Mexico
This is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and so I am devoting this edition of my blog to the subject of Victims’ Rights in New Mexico.
It is hard to imagine now that there was a time when victims of crime had no rights in the criminal justice system. No matter how badly they were hurt or affected by the criminal acts of another, they had virtually no voice as to what happened in these cases. It was not uncommon for cases to be dismissed or pled to lesser charges and defendants sentenced without the Victim ever having been notified. Thankfully, about 40 years ago, a movement began across the United States to give crime victims statutory and in some cases, constitutional rights. Today, every state in the country, as well as the federal government have some form of Victims’ Rights. In some states as well as for victims of federal crimes, there is no limitation on the types of crimes that qualify—the only requirement is that there be a nexus between the harm suffered and the crime committed. In other states, like New Mexico, there are enumerated crimes that have been identified to qualify for victim’s rights. A constitutional amendment was passed in 1992 which gave crime victims in New Mexico certain rights. Importantly, this amendment is in the Bill of Rights, which we typically think of as having our most basic and important rights as citizens. The legislature then adopted implementing statutes in 1994, defining which crimes qualified and listing the individual rights as well as the responsibilities of the victim, law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, and the courts.
Today, crime victims have a voice in the process, including conferring with the prosecutors, addressing the court at pleas and sentencing, restitution, notification of offender release among others. You can find a complete listing of rights in the New Mexico Constitution at Article II, Section 24 and the statutes NMSA section 31-26-1 et seq. Additional information can also be found HERE .
I started my career as a prosecutor in 1996 just a few years after the Victims Rights statutes were enacted, and so I have always been aware of and sensitive to, protecting these rights. I have dedicated my career specializing in child abuse, sexual assault and homicides, so the vast majority of my cases have dealt with enumerated crime victims. Additionally, when I took a much needed break from prosecution to work for the Victims’ Rights Project and the DWI Resource Center, I provided legal representation to crime victims, working with prosecutors to ensure their rights were enforced. This experience gave me an even keener sense and understanding of what crime victims go through as they attempt to navigate the criminal justice system. I continue to be a member of NAVRA (National Association of Victims Rights Attorneys) and NCVLI (National Crime Victims Legal Institute) where I am able to stay up to date on the latest developments in victims’ rights advocacy.
Protecting Victims’ rights is not just the law, or the right thing to do. It is critically important to make sure that those victimized by others are given the same respect and consideration as their offenders, so that they can become whole and not lose faith in the system that is supposed to protect them. Many individuals that are abused or victimized as children who are not given the support they need end up back in the criminal justice system on the other side as offenders—often addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Victims’ Rights are critically important to me, as anyone who has worked for me will confirm. I have taught Victims’ Rights across the state to prosecutors and law enforcement and within my office to my prosecutors. There is one pet peeve that I have which will get my blood boiling. I do not allow anyone working for me to say “alleged victim”. Those who suffer harm at the hands of others are not “alleged” anything. Their pain and suffering is real and they are identified as Victims by statute and constitution which affords them specific rights and responsibilities in the criminal justice system.
As your District Attorney I will continue to make Victims’ Rights a top priority by ensuring that the rights of victims are protected as vigorously as are the defendant’s rights.