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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Daniel Golden Jr. is an ex-convict who was hanging out at a birthday party in August when he suddenly became belligerent after someone changed the music. Authorities say he grabbed a 9mm handgun and fired several shots in the air before being arrested on a firearms charge.
Upon his arrest, investigators soon discovered that Golden shouldn't have been walking the streets in the first place because he had violated the terms of his probation. In fact, in the four times Golden had been released from state prison since 2006, he had violated the terms of his release each time.
He's not the only one in New Mexico. Around 1,500 ex-convicts accused of violating their parole or probation in New Mexico are on the run from authorities, and about a third of them are violent offenders, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Golden's case and others like it reveal an often-overlooked problem in the criminal justice system in New Mexico and around the country. Criminals are released on probation or parole, then violate the terms of the release. The state doesn't catch them, and they commit more crimes when they should be back behind bars.
The problem has prompted New Mexico Department of Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel to create a Fugitive Apprehension Team in response to the high number of violators, often called absconders.
"Any time we have absconders that means we're failing in terms of (public safety)," Marcantel said. "Let's be frank. They're not absconding to join the Peace Corps."
The reforms are part of a broader effort to overhaul the corrections system in New Mexico after inmates were found to have been released early or kept in prison past their release date. The state is building a centralized system to keep track of prisoners' release dates and adopting new policies aimed at prison rape prevention.
Corrections officials say there are currently 1,182 people on parole and 11,565 on probation in New Mexico. In addition, state numbers show that there are 1,093 who are on both parole and probation.
The New Mexico Department of Corrections records showed that the state has listed 166 parole fugitives and 1,371 individuals wanted for violating their terms of their release — roughly 11 percent of the state's total population currently on probation or parole.
An analysis by the AP showed that among those 1,537 fugitives, about 500 have been convicted of violent crimes and 700 or so were convicted of property crimes. Around 400 were convicted of drug crimes and little more than a dozen were linked to sex crimes.
Those numbers don't include fugitives who may have been arrested late last year.
Marcantel said it appears as if apprehending absconders wasn't much of a priority in previous years. "But it is now," he said.
Dwayne Santistevan, administrator of New Mexico's Security Threat Intelligence Unit for the prison system, said the new apprehension unit has made a number of arrests since forming in April. They occurred in two massive sweeps in September in October that nabbed about 70 people.
Among those arrested in September was David "Maniac" Greathouse, 28, a man convicted on a number of felonies, including armed robbery and kidnapping. Officials said Greathouse was arrested during a sweep near Albuquerque for violating the terms of his parole and was placed back in prison.
Santistevan said a number of fugitives arrested in the sweeps were found with drugs or were connected to recent crimes.
Others have been arrested by local authorities after committing new crimes.
In Golden's case, he was found by authorities only after allegedly shooting the gun at the Las Cruces party though he was wanted for violating parole. During a previous probation stint in 2008, he violated the terms of his release and was later arrested for distribution of imitation controlled substance and went back to prison, according to state records. He was later released, but violated parole in 2010 after an animal cruelty charge.
And other dangerous inmates have yet to be caught and remain fugitives. Juan Antonio Martinez, 59, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1979 but was released early on parole. He went missing in 2005 for violating the terms of his parole and remains on the loose.
Under New Mexico law, the punishment for apprehended absconders is determined by the State Parole Board and the courts.
State officials acknowledge that there's a catch-22 in attempting to round up violators. If the new unit was able to round up all of New Mexico's absconders, the state may be faced with prison overcrowding.
Currently, there are around 7,700 inmates in state prisons. Sen. Carroll H. Leavell, R-Jal, who is a member of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, said the system has only around 300 to 400 inmates beds available.
Marcantel said one work-around to the overcrowding dilemma is to go after the most violent absconders first and those most likely to commit more crimes. "There has to be a balance between offender management and public safety," he said.
Other states, faced with the same problem, are looking into reforms on how to balance aggressive absconder arrests with prison spaces.
Beginning this year in Pennsylvania, some parole violators, who have violated conditions of their parole but haven't committed new crimes, will be considered "technical parole violators." Those violators won't be sent back to state prison and instead will be assigned to "community correction centers."
In Maine and Montana, all probation officers are allowed to impose sanctions on violators rather than force the state to hold revocation hearings.
The absconder numbers come as the New Mexico Department of Corrections has drawn fire after reports surfaced that some inmates were being prematurely released while others are being held long after their full sentences have been served thanks to short-staffing and an antiquated paper record-keeping system.
Marcantel said he will ask lawmakers for funding to create a centralized database to modernize the state's record keeping in the prison system.
"This is all part of an effort to change the culture of this department," he said. "Ultimately, this all rests on my shoulder."
By Russell Contreras, Associated Press