4 Investigates: Tackling criminal competency in New Mexico

4 Investigates: Tackling criminal competency in New Mexico

When someone is deemed unfit to stand trial, do they get a free pass? Lawmakers are expected to take up criminal competency during the special session.

When we hear “revolving door,” we often think of violent criminals in a catch-and-release system – but perhaps it’s better used to describe the people trapped in a criminal justice system that doesn’t know what to do with them.

We’re talking about people suffering such severe mental illness that criminal cases against them are often dismissed. Without help, they come back repeatedly. Their plight will take center stage at the special session next month.

There are some people the police know by name. For some, interactions are often predictable.

People who are homeless are often dismissed as addicts or criminals. It can be hard to see beyond that.

Priscilla Puentes knows that struggle. There was a time when Puentes would describe her son, Joseph, as a smiley, six-foot-eight teddy bear.

“I see him in the streets, asleep, laying there and it’s very hard,” Puentes said. “I have to stop in my car and there’s literally times I want to throw up. And I have to go home like it’s nothing. It’s hard to see this.”

It wasn’t always so dark. His little sister, Jessica Rodriguez, said they were happy.

“Knowing the person he was when we were younger, super loving. I mean, he has six nieces and nephews on our side, and he knows every single birthday knows them by name when he talks to my mom he asks about them,” Rodriguez said.

They don’t get these moments anymore. No birthday dinners or Christmas celebrations. Joseph Puentes is either on the streets or in jail. For the last decade, they believe he has used addiction to treat his mental struggles. He lives with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“We tried our best to help him stay medicated because we knew he needed it,” Rodriguez said. “It started to become pretty severe. It just got to a point where it was dangerous almost for us to be around him.”

Dangerous for others too. Puentes has racked up close to 90 criminal cases over the years. But in close to half of those, the courts found him unfit or incompetent to stand trial.

“The issue of whether someone is competent is whether they are so impaired by a behavioral health issue that they can’t assist their attorney. That they can’t talk to their attorney, that their attorney can’t talk to them in a way that you can put on an effective defense,” Chief Public Defender Ben Baur said.

Baur said it often means case dismissed – with the hope the individuals, who were ruled incompetent, are offered some kind of help.

KOB 4 asked whose responsibility it is to ensure the person gets those resources.

“It’s a good question and I think often unclear because if they’re not under supervision of the courts there’s a limited amount that can be done,” Baur said.

Instead, people like Puentes often find themselves in trouble again.

“I think it could be argued that it’s cruel for everybody involved,” Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman said. “It’s cruel for the criminal justice system to be overloaded with people they see over and over again with nothing being done to help victims of crime and the folks who are suffering from mental illness we should be getting help for.”

KOB 4 sifted through court records and discovered around 100 people arrested in the last two years who were all previously found incompetent. Together, they had nearly 2,100 criminal cases. Of those, at least half were dismissed.

The Puentes family will tell you, they’ve tried it all.

“It’s very frustrating to hear nothing will happen unless he either kills somebody… or does something horrific.”  

Without a court order or someone holding Joseph’s hand, they know he won’t get the help he needs.

“The bar, perhaps right, perhaps wrong, is set very, very high before we take someone’s freedom away and commit them into an institution if you will,” Bregman said.

Gabrielle Deitrich, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said any focus on criminal competency should be less about the justice system and more about investing and expanding our behavioral health system capacity. She said it’s more important to build trust with individuals who she said are more likely to be victims of crime.

“We need to think about attracting providers to the state of New Mexico and helping them have the resources they need to stay,” Deitrich said. “I think that would go a long way toward helping people know where to go and helping them get there.”

As it stands, the mental health capacity is strapped. Baur said there’s a wait list just for mental health evaluations.

“It’s in the community’s interest for us to really address this,” Baur said. “But going through the process of prosecution, raising competency, incarcerating, and then having them released, often worse off than when they went in, that isn’t solving the problem. We need a better approach.”

Until then, Priscilla Puentes isn’t sure what the next phone call might bring.

“I already lost a son at 23 in a car accident. And I fear every day and every night that they’re going to get a call to tell me I’ve lost my other son. And that is the hardest thing for me. To live every day to lose my son to this mental illness,” Puentes said.

These days, their hopes and dreams for Joseph are much simpler. Like sharing a home-cooked meal. Or feeling safe enough to be together again.

“Not having to teach my kids if you see Uncle Joe come inside and make sure the doors are locked. We have to continue trying, continuing having hope even though we want to quit,” Jessica Rodriguez said.

This issue is a complicated one. But it’s so important that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to ask lawmakers to revisit assisted outpatient treatment in the upcoming special session.

There’s only one community in New Mexico that has experience with maintaining a program like that.