Last October, Jenna Yañez was hired as the part-time director of Santa Fe’s first Court Watch project, an effort to reduce domestic violence rates by ensuring that at least one outside observer watches cases move through the system. (To volunteer, contact Yañez at 573-4042, firstname.lastname@example.org.) Before moving to Santa Fe in 2008, Yañez worked in Ohio as a legal advocate for refugee women who had suffered genital mutilation. SFR caught up with Yañez at The Teahouse on Canyon Road, where she was studying a thick compendium of statewide domestic violence statistics.
SFR: What interesting things have you found in that manual?
JY: There was a 26 percent conviction rate for domestic violence crimes [statewide in 2008]. That’s from arraignment—the decision to prosecute—all the way through to judgment. So that doesn’t include ones that are dismissed before sentencing or ones who get a plea deal. That seems really low to me.
I’ve heard there are so many plea deals because local juries often won’t convict domestic abusers.
That’s something I’ve seen: ‘We don’t want to take this to a jury because this woman dresses inappropriately and a jury’s going to say she’s not a fine, upstanding woman.’
What have you learned so far about the court system in Santa Fe?
Technology-wise, Santa Fe seems to be a little behind. It makes it more difficult for everybody. Also, like other things in Santa Fe, the atmosphere isn’t as formal. A lot of volunteers have been surprised by the chaos in the courtroom. One thing that’s surprised me is…everybody knows everybody. In Magistrate Court, I remember one of the judges looking at one of the offenders and saying, ‘When I was a probation officer, I remember dealing with your dad. This is a cycle that needs to be broken.’
Has anyone said you shouldn’t be in the courtroom?
Not directly. It’s a small town and I hear some people aren’t very happy about our presence. Some of the judges have been welcoming and cooperative, and some of the judges have chosen not to meet with me at all.
Who hasn’t met with you?
I haven’t met with [1 st District Chief Judge Stephen] Pfeffer. And I haven’t met with Judge George Anaya Jr. in Magistrate Court. Or [Magistrate Sandra] Miera. And I have no way of knowing if it’s because they’re overly busy or they don’t see the purpose in what I’m doing.
Tell me one hopeful thing you’ve seen and one discouraging thing.
One hopeful thing: [1 st District] Judge Michael Vigil, who had previously been criticized for his handling of a DV case, has been one of the most welcoming and eager judges as far as this program, and has been carefully considering bond hearings and requests to release a perpetrator. That was encouraging. Something discouraging I’ve seen are cases being dismissed for lack of resources… The number of cases each prosecutor is expected to handle here seems almost impossible. I don’t know how they do it. Definitely, the economic climate of New Mexico is reflected in the courts.
What do your volunteers see on a typical day?
At Magistrate Court, it’s generally a huge cattle call. There are dozens of offenders in the room, dozens of lawyers in the room. You wouldn’t expect everybody to be talking at the same time and still know what’s going on, but that’s what happens. It moves a lot more quickly than you would expect.
Have your expectations lowered about what’s possible?
My expectations have definitely shifted. If the existence of the program can keep anybody safe, or safer, then it’s a success. And if people only act differently because we’re sitting there, then we’ll just make sure we’re sitting there. I had grand visions of fixing the system, but I think the solution might just be that we as a community need to get re-involved in the judicial process.