Obelisk Approach Warranted

District Attorney Op-Ed: ‘Restorative justice is a new concept for our community’

The destruction of the Plaza obelisk was a crime. Criminals damaged public property and damaged the fabric of trust in our community. No matter what you believe about the obelisk, we will never forget the images of it being torn down in a way that was chaotic, violent and caused so many hearts to break.

Last week, after months of careful investigation and negotiation between the defendants, their attorneys and my office, a resolution was reached that, I believe, ensures justice for those who committed the crime, while working toward community healing—a goal we all share, especially now. The resolution is steeped in restorative justice—a method that holds offenders responsible for their actions and also provides opportunity for everyone affected by the crime to find resolution. To be clear, the defendants’ charges have not been dismissed and will not be unless and until they complete this six-month to two-year program.

Restorative justice is a new concept for our community, so I wanted to provide some background and context. The case of the destruction of the obelisk faced factual and legal issues because we do not have a New Mexico state statute that fully encompasses destruction of public property. The obelisk itself is actually federal property, but the federal legal system declined to prosecute this case.

In New Mexico, a first-time nonviolent offender would likely not face jail time, even after trial. To be clear, under our current system and laws, there was no good way to pursue, and win, jail time for the individuals who brought down the obelisk. Also, given the national conversation around reducing mass incarceration, this case is a prime example of a way for a community to move forward toward true accountability, rather than an ineffective and costly punishment that serves no one.

It was also my promise upon assuming this position that our office would do our best to divert nonviolent and first-time offenders from costly system processes and unnecessary incarceration, as our society is doing with much more frequency with low-level drug and other nonviolent crimes. The obelisk case defendants met the criteria I set out for diversionary programming. Given all of these factors, a diversion program was the best path forward to extract meaningful justice for our community.

Restorative justice does not mean the obelisk defendants are getting off with just a “slap on the wrist” as has been implied in some venues. The defendants are court-ordered to participate in this rigorous program and must face the consequences of their actions on a community stage. The charges have not been dismissed.

Over the course of six months to two years, the defendants must participate fully in the restorative justice program, for which they will pay, and will engage victims, community members and all those affected by the obelisk destruction to meet and discuss terms of reconciliation. This includes potential restitution, terms of community service and other ways they can help to resolve the harm they caused to the city and its residents.

Defendants are also ordered to complete 40 hours of community service and must acknowledge their role and responsibility in the destruction of the obelisk in a written statement to the District Attorney’s Office. If they do not complete the terms, the case will be put back on the court’s calendar for further prosecution.

The destruction of the obelisk was personal to all of us. The obelisk sits in the heart of the city and holds a history that is important, controversial and complex. It’s my job to ensure something like this never happens again. This is why restorative justice is so important because it both addresses the crime and engages community members to talk and seek a resolution that will help us all to move forward as a united city.

Mary Carmack-Altwies

First Judicial District Attorney

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