Sen. Lisa Torraco has just one legislative session under her belt, but already she is poised to change the world.
The world, in this case, is the one behind bars, the one involving criminals and community safety, prison funding, public interests.
The freshman/almost sophomore Republican senator from Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights is helping to lead the effort to rewrite the state’s criminal code, a feat that hasn’t been tackled directly by lawmakers in decades.
Torraco and House Democratic Whip Antonio “Moe” Maestas of Albuquerque’s West Side are co-chairs of the Criminal Justice Reform subcommittee, a bipartisan group of eight and an offshoot of the Courts, Corrections and Justice committee.
As the name implies, the effort is not just aimed at revising the criminal code, but prison reform, prisoner rehabilitation and wiser use of criminal justice resources.
“To me, it’s not getting tougher on crime; it’s getting smarter on crime,” said Torraco, who like Maestas is a practicing attorney and former prosecutor. “Why is the jail full of nonviolent offenders when the violent ones are still on the streets? Why are we spending all this money, throwing all this money, into Corrections and we’re still not safe? And think of what else we could do with all that money.”
At least at the onset, both Republican and Democratic contingencies seem well married, a refreshing stance considering the infuriating impasse in Washington, D.C.
Both sides say they hope to focus on better ways to use limited funding, on emptying prisons and shifting some of the emphasis from drug crimes to violent crimes.
“These ideas have been percolating in the Legislature since I got there, but sometimes they have broken down along party lines,” Maestas said. ” This time, though, we want to go big, and we want to be all-inclusive. We want to bring everybody to the table – the cops, the DAs, criminal defense attorneys, civil rights attorneys, victim advocates, local jail folks, Department of Corrections, bondsmen, all aspects of the criminal justice system.”
And you, the public. The first meeting is Nov. 26, and you’re invited.
The initial meetings, both chairs said, will focus on philosophy and laying the groundwork for what is expected to be at least a two-year endeavor. The subcommittee will hear from national experts, including some from South Dakota and Texas, which recently revised their criminal codes.
“Texas did a complete revision of its criminal code and their crime rates went down, their spending went down,” Torraco said. “They closed a prison or two, and the consensus is, their public is safer.”
A major overhaul of the code was last undertaken in 1997, led by the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council, a study group including judges, prosecutors and others from the criminal justice realm, said Tony Ortiz, director of the New Mexico Sentencing Commission. As a result, the Legislature in 1999 passed the council’s “truth in sentencing” law, which eliminated most of the “good time” credits inmates could earn to reduce their sentences. An additional council-backed revision to felony sentencing guidelines, called the Sentencing Standards Act, passed the Legislature that same year but was vetoed by then-Gov. Gary Johnson.
For the most part, however, New Mexico’s criminal code has been revised in patchwork fashion – a stronger sentence here, a conditional clause there.
By examining the issue as a whole, though, Torraco said she hopes each component can be seen comparatively. How, for example, does it jibe that killing somebody by vehicular homicide can net six years in prison but a second-offense drug trafficking conviction can mean a sentence of 18 years? How does it make sense to keep tossing someone back into prison for drug-related crimes without providing drug rehabilitation? Why keep outmoded laws on the books yet have few that address the burgeoning issue of Internet crime?
“There’s the saying that we can either incarcerate those who we’re scared of as opposed to those who we’re mad at,” Maestas said. “In other words, we need to ask, are those who are in prison a threat to public safety? If the answer is no, then let’s figure out what to do with them and the laws that brought them there in the first place.”
Torraco said one of her biggest concerns is that the subcommittee puts years of work into a huge proposed overhaul only to have the effort fail because some advocacy group, lobbying effort or individual complains their voice was not heard.
So here’s your chance. Show up, speak up, weigh in, listen in, take a bite in the way New Mexico takes its bite out of crime.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.