Martinez again backs death penalty, stiffer sentences

Gov. Susana Martinez talks about her anti-crime proposals during an Albuquerque news conference Monday. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will push again this year to reinstate the death penalty and toughen criminal sentences for a host of offenses, setting up another clash with the Democratic majorities in the Legislature.

But there’s a hint of bipartisan support for at least one of her anti-crime priorities — making it easier to keep suspects in jail after they’ve been arrested but not yet convicted of a crime.

House Republican Leader Nate Gentry and Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, both of Albuquerque, say they plan to introduce legislation directing judges to keep suspects in custody when there’s probable cause to believe the person committed a felony while out on court-ordered supervision for an earlier felony, among other requirements. Defendants would have an opportunity to rebut the presumption that they’re dangerous and should stay in jail.

It would be part of a three-bill package that also includes:

“These bills offer practical solutions to reduce New Mexico’s escalating crime rates,” Ivey-Soto said in a written statement.

Democrats in the Legislature have repeatedly rejected Martinez-backed proposals to reinstate the death penalty — after conviction for killing a child or a police or corrections officer — and other proposals to enhance criminal sentences. They argue the proposals aren’t an effective way to deter crime.

But Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, has said he expects bipartisan support this year for a “balanced” approach to crime that keeps dangerous people off the streets but gets suspects who aren’t dangerous either out of the system or into the treatment they need. He’s also suggested a legislative solution may not be necessary on pre-trial detention if the judiciary takes action on its own to update court rules.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said focusing solely on penalty enhancements is an incomplete approach to the state’s crime problem.

“Every other state that’s looking at this is going in the other direction,” he said, referring to bills that reduce penalties for non-violent offenses and place a greater emphasis on treatment and intervention programs.

“People don’t just want more laws on the books — they want more police officers on the streets,” Egolf added.

But Martinez said Monday that she thinks lawmakers will take a closer look at her crime proposals this year as they respond to pressure from constituents over the state’s escalating crime rate.

New Mexico had the nation’s highest property crime rate and the second-highest violent crime rate in 2016, the last year for which FBI data are available.

Repeat offenders “are making a mockery of the criminal justice system,” Martinez said in an Albuquerque news conference.

Making it easier to keep dangerous people in jail once they’ve been arrested, she said, is one of her priorities.

To that end, the Gentry and Ivey-Soto proposal would create a presumption that a suspect is dangerous — and that no condition of release will keep the public safe — under certain circumstances, such as when offenders commit a new felony when they’re already out on bail for an earlier felony. At least one of the charges would have to have involved violence or the potential for violence, such as the use of a weapon or infliction of bodily harm.

Gentry said the three-bill package represents “a few common-sense ideas that will keep New Mexico’s most dangerous criminals off our streets, connect inmates with needed drug and mental health treatment, and offer incentives for experienced law enforcement officers to stay on the beat.”

A 30-day session of the Legislature begins Jan. 16. It’s largely dedicated to budget matters, but Martinez has authority to add other topics to the agenda.

Martinez, a former prosecutor, is entering her eighth year as governor and cannot run for re-election due to state term limits. Next week’s session is the last regular session of her tenure.

Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this report.