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New Mexico’s violent crime, pedestrian deaths revealing

An Albuquerque police officer investigates the scene of a fatal pedestrian accident at Central and Pennsylvania Feb. 28. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

The pandemic has had a dramatic effect on road safety.

In the Republic of Ireland, with its population of just over 5 million souls, 130 people died in fatal road collisions in 2021, according to the Irish Times.

That made 2021 “the safest year since such data was first collected in 1959.”

The pandemic affected road safety in New Mexico, too, but in the opposite way. With our population of 2 million, we killed 470 people on our roads in 2021.

That wasn’t quite an all-time high, but it was a big jump. As D’Val Westphal reported in the Journal, as recently as 2015 the state recorded “only” 298 road fatalities.

And then we come to pedestrians. Last year, 99 walkers were killed on New Mexico’s roads. In more-populous Ireland, the toll was 18.

One explanation for the contrast might be found in the roads themselves. Our wide, straight streets are built for speed. Speed makes for longer braking distances and higher-speed collisions.

Ireland’s narrow, winding roads turn out to be far more intelligently laid out — if, that is, one accepts the preservation of human life as a more important goal than fast, uninterrupted travel.

But I don’t think infrastructure is the whole story. Consider that Ireland’s homicide rate for 2020 (0.87 per 100,000 population) was also much lower than New Mexico’s (7.8). Two different types of violent death produce similar contrasting numbers. It’s hard to believe that’s coincidence.

Earlier this month, Ireland was shocked by the murder of Ashling Murphy, a young teacher and musician killed near her home in the Irish midlands.

Her death dominated national news. The Irish Times ran multiple articles analyzing the culture of misogyny that normalizes violence against women. The Dáil (Ireland’s parliament) convened a special session devoted to the topic. Michael D. Higgins, the president of Ireland, personally telephoned Ms. Murphy’s family to condole with them.

Here in New Mexico, we take a more relaxed attitude toward murder. Speaking in reference to the huge spike in homicides in the state’s only large city, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said: “It’s a problem that Albuquerque has largely created for itself. It’s not really about changing state law.”

In the contrast between President Higgins and Sen. Cervantes, and between the Dáil’s special session and the dismissive shrug of New Mexico’s legislative leaders, I think we can begin to see another, deeper explanation for the vastly differing rates of violent death.

Another clue is provided by the geographical distribution of homicides within Albuquerque. As longtime residents know, and the Journal’s homicide map illustrates, killings cluster along the I-40 corridor and points south. Those aren’t the city’s wealthiest zip codes.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics confirms that the poorer you are, the more likely you will become the victim of violent crime. The effect isn’t subtle. People making less than $25,000 are twice as likely to be violently assaulted than those whose household income tops $50,000.

Pedestrian deaths, too, are geographically concentrated — in the same areas of town. We can be pretty sure the people trying to cross East Central at night mostly aren’t rich.

Our pedestrian fatality rate and our violent crime rate are both astronomically high because they measure the same thing: how well our government fulfills its core duty to protect the lives of its citizens, including the poorest.

Still, Sen. Cervantes is on to something. His hometown of Las Cruces, with a population almost precisely one-fifth of Albuquerque’s, saw nine homicides in 2021. That’s the per capita equivalent to 45 homicides in Albuquerque.

As it happens, Albuquerque averaged 40.3 homicides per year from 2006 through 2015. Homicides began to skyrocket only in 2016, the first full year of the Supreme Court’s case management order for Bernalillo County.

The order imposes strict deadlines during the pretrial phase of criminal prosecutions. It requires judges to impose sanctions on the state for any tardiness, up to and including suppression of evidence and dismissal of charges.

Of course, neither the state nor individual prosecutors suffer any harm from such sanctions. Only the people of Albuquerque do, and especially the poorest among them.

The case management order applies only in Bernalillo County. By enforcing it, the state already treats Albuquerque as a separate legal system.

If the city is going to be left alone to deal with its crime problem, as Sen. Cervantes advocates, then here’s a modest proposal. The Legislature should give Albuquerque authority to enact its own criminal code, enforced in its own criminal courts, with procedural rules written by the City Council and not by the Supreme Court.

Then it truly wouldn’t be a matter for state law.

Joel Jacobsen is an author who in 2015 retired from a 29-year legal career. If there are topics you would like to see covered in future columns, please write him at legal.column.tips@gmail.com.

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