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Governor to push for tougher child abuse penalties

Gov. Susana Martinez

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will push again this year to toughen penalties for intentional child abuse and to fix legal “loopholes” that she says help child predators.

Her administration is also trying a new strategy to get the changes passed – rolling them into one bill to make it easy for the Legislature to act quickly.

“The public is demanding that we do more to protect our children,” Monique Jacobson, secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department, said in an interview Thursday.

Criminal defense lawyers, in turn, say that increasing penalties doesn’t deter crime and that the state should focus on preventing child abuse.

“We don’t consider them necessary changes,” said Kim Chavez Cook, assistant appellate defender with the Law Offices of the Public Defender. “We don’t believe increased penalties are effective deterrents.”

A 30-day session, largely dedicated to the state budget, begins Tuesday.

The administration’s proposal this year will include:

• An expansion of “Baby Brianna’s Law” to cover all children up to 18. The current law – which imposes a life sentence for intentional child abuse resulting in death – applies to children ages 12 and younger.

Jacobson said every “child, whether 4 or 14, deserves the same protection.”

Chavez Cook said the law was intended to address crimes against young children who can’t defend themselves.

• Stiffening the penalties for intentional child abuse that doesn’t result in death or great bodily harm, to distinguish it from negligent child abuse in similar circumstances.

Increased penalties are warranted, Jacobson said, for someone who punches a child in the face until his or her eyes swell shut, a circumstance that might be not considered great bodily harm if no bones are broken.

Chavez Cook said a child abuse conviction already calls for serious penalties and that to “just continue going up and up” on the sentence for every crime isn’t the right approach.

• Toughening penalties for sending an obscene photo of a body part to a child, even if the image isn’t of the adult’s own body.

• Increasing penalties for the enticement of a child into a secluded area for the purpose of sexual assault or similar behavior, even if the assault itself doesn’t happen.

Jacobson said the public outcry over New Mexico’s crime rate has added urgency to the debate and the stiffer penalties would complement other efforts to prevent child abuse.

“This by itself isn’t the answer,” she said, “but we think this is part of comprehensive answer to an incredibly heartbreaking situation.”