Metro judges ‘concerned’ about access to records

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – At 5 p.m. Thursday, officials began transferring millions of pieces of data on people’s criminal records from a foundering computer system at New Mexico’s busiest court to a new repository that’s already in use elsewhere in the state.

But there’s some information that’s not making the trip, which has judges and a leading government transparency group raising concerns about secrecy.

For years, the public has been able to access more than 30 years worth of data on all cases through Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court’s website. Metro Court handles all misdemeanor cases for the county, and felony charges in the county are filed at the court first, then moved across the street to state District Court when suspects are arraigned.

Now, data on misdemeanor cases — except for DWI and domestic violence — will only be publicly available for the most recent five years at any given point in time. And felony cases? Data will only be available to citizens online for the two most recent years.

(The state courts website, http://www.nmcourts.gov, will still have data going back decades on felony cases — but only those that have been indicted by prosecutors.)

The move was engineered by the state Administrative Office of the Courts and its Judicial Information Division,

“These were decisions that were made by the chief justice (of the state Supreme Court) and the (Judicial Information Division of the Administrative Office of the Courts) based on the capacity of the new system and other reasons,” Chief Metro Judge Julie Altwies said at a news conference announcing the data transfer on Thursday.

Altwies did not elaborate on the “other reasons.”

In an interview last month, Steve Prisoc, chief information officer for the Judicial Information Division, said the decision to not move all the data over came down to money. The state couldn’t afford enough server space to house the massive volume of information housed in the current system at Metro Court, which opened in 1980.

Whatever the reason, Altwies said the decrease in public access to court records is concerning.

“To give you a short answer, yes we’re concerned,” Altwies said. “And we’ve been expressing those concerns for some time …  People need to know someone’s background when they’re hiring employees. People need to get information to say: ‘It was or it was not me’ on a particular criminal case when they’re trying to be a tenant somewhere.

“There are a thousand reasons people need to have information about prior cases — not to mention that the judges need it.”

The judges will still have access to the older cases, but on a system Altwies described as “at the end of its life.”

The new data are being transferred to the state’s “Odyssey” system, which the majority of municipal and magistrate courts in New Mexico already are using. Metro Court’s older data will remain on its “AS-400″ system which, News 13 has learned, has crashed numerous times in the past several months.

That means Metro judges will have to toggle between the two systems — and hope the AS-400 is having a good day — when they’re reviewing a defendant’s past record while setting bond and other conditions of release.

“How the judges are going to work the two systems side by side, get information that we need — part of that … we’re going to discover on Monday,” Altwies said. “We don’t want to limit the information to the judges so that they can make the best decisions that they need to make on the bench.”

To mitigate those concerns, Metro judges have asked the court’s background investigators who sit in their courtrooms and provide real-time information about suspects to play an increased role. Those investigators have access to several databases that contain information about people’s criminal histories.

“The background investigators won’t be able to provide information in every instance, though,” Altwies said.

Prisoc said in the interview and at Thursday’s news conference that the AOC has a tentative plan to build a new system that will house the data that’s staying in the AS-400. He did not say whether the public will have access to that information if a new system is built.

The decision to leave so many previously public court records on the cutting room floor drew the ire on Thursday of the state’s leading transparency organization.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government sent a statement to News 13:

“The decision to remove years and years’ worth of public court records from public view is wrong.  If members of our community have been arrested or convicted of crimes, the public has a significant interest in access to that information.  We understand the need for Metro Court to upgrade its computer system, but in doing so it has a responsibility to make sure that the existing records remain easily accessible to the public.”

Altwies echoed FOG’s concerns, citing what she called Metro Court’s longstanding commitment to transparency.

The data transfer means Metro Court will be closed Friday. The tentative debut for the Odyssey system will be Sunday, which judges will hold initial court appearances for defendants at 1 p.m.

If everything goes according to plan, Odyssey will see its first day of full implementation Monday.

Altwies said the court is expecting delays.

“Metro Court is no longer in hyper drive,” she said. “We have slowed down to just very, very fast.”

The court’s 16 criminal judges and three civil judges take on about 100,000 new cases a year, she said.

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