Justice Zamora: Commission Will Address Competency Issues

New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Briana Zamora

New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Briana Zamora is a leader in efforts to DO something about an issue that plagued her since she first was on the district court bench: Encourage justice for people not competent to stand trial and the families of their victims.

A criminal defendant is not competent to stand trial if they lack the ability to consult with defense counsel with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and can’t form a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against them.

Justice Zamora, originally elected to the Court of Appeals in 2018, was appointed to the state supreme court by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and in November is facing her first contested election. In her interview for appointment by the Governor, the Justice said, “I told her that individuals with mental health issues—especially severe ones—present the worst problems for us. There are no viable solutions.”

Justice Zamora will be one of two speakers at this month’s Unite Nite, set to take place from 6:00 to 7:30 Tuesday, August 23 via zoom. The same night, Justin Allen, an organizer with Millions for Prisoners, will present on criminal justice reform legislation to be proposed in the January 2023 legislative session. Click here to register.

That competency problem may change now that the high court has created the Permanent Judicial Commission on Mental Health and Competency. The commission is charged with improving how the justice system responds to people with mental health-related issues, and includes representatives of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; tribal governments; advocates for behavioral health services and housing; those with life experience in mental health issues; and criminal justice system partners–law enforcement, prosecutors and defense counsel.

“The commission will develop a roadmap for New Mexico to better meet the behavioral health needs of adults and juveniles who come into contact with our state judicial system,” said Justice Zamora, who will serve as the state Supreme Court’s liaison to the 17-member commission.

The commission will have a broad range of responsibilities, including reviewing policies and procedures concerning a person’s competency to stand trial and considering how to better identify people in need of mental health treatment before they enter the justice system. The commission also is to explore ways of expanding the behavioral health resources available in communities and courts statewide, particularly in underserved communities and rural areas.

The Court requires the Commission to “promote fair treatment of affected individuals, to improve public safety through appropriate and meaningful behavioral health interventions, and to provide proper education and training to judges, lawyers, court staff and cross-system partners at the intersection of behavioral health and criminal justice.”

Ex-officio members of the commission include: the New Mexico chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI); the Human Services Department’s Behavioral Health Services Division; the Children, Youth and Families Department’s Behavioral Health Division; the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute; the New Mexico Departments of Corrections, Indian Affairs, Veterans Services; and the New Mexico Association of Counties.

Justice Zamora said she expects that, through collaboration and sharing expertise, the commission will come up with workable, pragmatic solutions to the problem of fair punishment or correction of people who commit crimes but who cannot be held fully accountable because of their mental condition. “It will be really helpful for us all to sit at the same table and try to solve this problem,” she said.

“The worst cases I’ve seen revolve around competency,” the Justice said. “There is no way, currently, that anyone benefits,” from adjudication in such instances. “Supervision can’t really help, they [incompetent criminal defendants] can’t be held in long-term custody, and their cases ultimately are often dismissed. That is not great for victims.”

“I live in the State’s largest jurisdiction,” she continued, “where you’d think we’d have ample resources” to help. However even in Albuquerque I couldn’t get enough resources to help the defendant or victim families.”

The commission will make recommendations to all three branches of government—to the Supreme Court regarding programs including modifications to diversionary programs, to the legislative branch for amendments to current law and to the executive for changing timeliness—for instance, requiring that forensic evaluators get paid well enough to avoid delays because of a backlog.