First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies has had a challenging first week in office after taking over from former DA Marco Serna: recovering from COVID-19, a major shift in policy away from prosecuting felony drug possession cases and confusion around one of the Plaza obelisk protester cases.
Carmack-Altwies tells SFR she feels fine following a bout with coronavirus and has since tested negative for COVID-19 after her initial diagnosis, though she is frequently out of breath and stuck with a nasty-sounding cough.
COVID-19 didn't stop her decision to bring an "effective end" to the felony prosecution of drug possession cases—fulfilling a campaign promise and her desire to treat substance abuse and mental health disorders as just that. The shift announced Monday, Carmack-Altwies says, will free up time and resources for homicide, rape and residential burglary prosecutions.
"If we're spending a third of our time focusing on possession charges, that only leaves two-thirds to focus on literally every other case," she says. "The war on drugs has failed. We have done nothing to accomplish the end of drug use in America. So since we've been doing it one way for 40 years, I'm going to try it another way."
Carmack-Altwies says she has instructed her prosecutors to move such cases to diversion programs, including treatment and community service, for incoming cases and will attempt to plead all current felony possession cases down to misdemeanors.
There hasn't been any pushback to the change in policy yet, though Carmack-Altwies does anticipate some. She says there's a "hunger" among public defenders, judges and even Española Police Department's police chief to do things differently.
"Some people think a crime is a crime is a crime and should be punished accordingly," the Democratic prosecutor tells SFR. "I believe this class of crimes needs to be treated differently."
With a diversion policy in place, Carmack-Altwies acknowledges there will be an increase in people seeking help, but she hopes to "spread the diversion around" to 12-step recovery groups as well in-patient treatment.
Carmack-Altwies was also embroiled in the confusion around Sean Sunderland, one of two people arrested on Indigenous Peoples Day before other protesters brought the obelisk down.
Sunderland's case was dismissed by the presiding judge after the prosecuting officer failed to appear for one of the hearings. (The case is now back on after the Santa Fe Police Department found the department never received the notice to appear.)
Carmack-Altwies previously told the Albuquerque Journal that SFPD declined her office's help in the case, but Deputy Chief Paul Joye maintains he requested help and that Assistant District Attorney Richard Wilson had been working with prosecuting officer Jesse Campbell.
Carmack-Altwies clarifies that her office is helping Campbell with technical issues such as reviewing pleadings and that one of her deputy attorneys is giving a training at SFPD on Friday instructing officers on how to prosecute their own cases. Wilson will serve as prosecutor for felony cases related to the destruction of the obelisk while the police will handle the misdemeanors until the case is ready for trial.
While Carmack-Altwies has been recovering and quarantining at home from her bout with COVID-19, she says a few people have tested positive in her office over the course of the pandemic, though no one seems to have gotten it from work.