The solution for crime reduction in New Mexico is not a simple mix of crime and punishment. It does not fall on the shoulders of just the courts, just police, or just the jails, to fix. That’s why a statewide, multi-organizational collaboration is bringing a combination of these to the forefront of communities to try instead.
Housed within the University of New Mexico’s Institute for Social Research (ISR), the New Mexico Sentencing Commission (NMSC) is making that critical connection between cities, towns and counties through its administration of Crime Reduction Grants. Before you understand how this commission even begins the process of distributing grants or what the money does, it’s important to note how this web of criminal justice system officials and experts got their current gig.
“It's been a natural kind of transition of the original organization to the commission as we know it today. There's a great synergy with our being at the university. It's a happy home, basically,” NMSC Deputy Director Douglas Carver said.
The NMSC is now celebrating its 20th year under its current name within the ISR.
“While the Commission is housed at UNM, all of our work is really with all the communities of New Mexico. I think that that's an important piece because that's one of the values and goals for the university generally– to increase community involvement,” NMSC Executive Director Linda Freeman said.
It is one of three contract and grant funded centers fighting the good fight within UNM’s ISR, alongside the Center for Applied Research & Analysis and New Mexico Statistical Analysis Center.
“This is a great example of how UNM is able to bring together stakeholders from the community and communities together to solve community problems. The NMSC allows people to do very important projects on a grassroots level about the justice system and social justice,” ISR Director Tamar Ginossar said.
Although it was created in the 1970’s, the commission was dormant till the late 1990’s when it was active as the Criminal and Juvenile Coordinating Council. The NMSC’s mission got an especially crucial boost in 2019. House Bill 175 was signed into law that year, creating the Crime Reduction Grant Act and subsequently, the grants themselves.
“Just step back and look at the big picture. When the bill was passed in 2019, the idea came out of a working group that had looked at criminal justice issues and had solutions,” Carver said. “That's where it started. That was the origin and in the last couple of years, we've received a lot more money for the grants than we had before.”
This means that for each of New Mexico's 13 judicial districts, there is a council made up of its area’s top law enforcement, district attorney, jail and behavioral health representatives. Once you’re a member of said council, you’re able to apply for grants–thanks to that funding established within the Crime Reduction Grant Act.
“There are purpose areas in the act itself, and those have expanded somewhat over time,” NMSC Director of Research Nancy Shane said. “Part of the purpose of the grants is to get information to the state about what kinds of new programs work well so that they might be funded on a wider basis and more consistently.”
CJCC members are able to apply for their share of funding, with a unique idea to curb incarceration or related issues in their municipalities.
“Rather than a top down method, the theory is that localities know best or might know best what will work best for their location. If one of these innovations proves itself, then the state ultimately might fund it, that's the genesis of it,” Carver said.
“We do have a research responsibility, so these grants that are awarded, we are expected to follow their outcomes and see if the programs are effective,” Freeman said. “We really hold ourselves and pride ourselves on trying to be neutral arbiters of this process.”
That over time component is critical. The NMSC does not simply dish out and leave. They keep tabs and keep notes for future grant cycles.
“With the Crime Reduction Grant funds, we're able to find those small projects across the state and really get to work on solving the issues that people see within their own communities.” – NMSC Staff Attorney Keri Thiel.
”Part of the Crime Reduction Grant Act's purpose is not just to give these grants and develop new programs, but to get data from those programs into a centralized system in the state. One of the problems with criminal justice is the lack of data,” Carver said.
With so many councils, members, and big innovations, it’s no wonder the demand for a grant is so intense, in so many different parts of the state. This past cycle, there was $3 million to go around. The NMSC received over 50 applications, with requests for nearly double that amount.
“It's a competitive process. What we've seen through the applications is that there are a lot of really great ideas all over the state that are able to be funded through the CRGA and wouldn’t be if not for the Act,” NMSC Staff Attorney Keri Thiel said.
Although the NMSC staff is not directly responsible for which application gets the green light, grants are awarded by a subcommittee of the NMSC – staff facilitate the process from the beginning, to the end.
“One thing that's very impressive to me is that each member of the grants sub-committee has their own expertise on overall systemic issues. They are talking to each other on how to solve problems. That can only be a good thing–that more people are talking to each other,” Shane said.
It’s a big web of members, councils, committees and agencies, all vitally connecting to one another. Since 2019, although grant cycles came and went, there had not been an official gathering of all of these equitable justice advocates. That changed in April, thanks to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council & Crime Reduction Grant Act Grantee Convening at UNM.
“It was really an opportunity for all of them to get together and begin to develop a discourse among themselves. They're very interested in talking to each other and listening to each other and thinking in a very, very big way about how to solve problems,” Freeman said.
Over 80 people attended the convening at the UNM Continuing Education Building from across the state, with all but one Judicial District represented. Presenters included representatives from the Council of State Governments Justice Counts initiative, the New Mexico’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and the Justice Management Institute.
“We just asked everyone to identify something that they see as a criminal justice problem within their community. We brainstormed on what there are possible solutions for,” Thiel said. “I think there was a really high amount of hope for the future and optimism about these programs and other new ideas going forward.”
This allowed every corner of the state to share their own issues, brainstorm solutions and make connections. Crime reduction grant recipients also presented on their own experiences, with a lot to be learned.
“Many of these jurisdictions, I think, were surprised that they're all faced with the same dilemmas. In spite of various levels of funding, I think it was really encouraging for them to see that they're facing similar issues. They're really interested in engaging with each other to see how they can learn from each other,” Freeman said.
No matter if it is hosting conventions, or facilitating the research, UNM is helping NMSC connect funds to causes which will ultimately better New Mexico.
“A goal is to use these grants to monitor and research and follow these local innovations and then leveraging the position of the NMSC at UNM, to get to the attention of the state level.” Carver said.
“Regardless of where we are in the political map, where we are geographically. We all want to reduce crime, right?” Ginossar said. “The NMSC is really something that a lot of time is not on the radar of UNM because it's very different. Maybe, though, it can help us all in what we all want to achieve.”