Analysts: More officers key to fighting crime

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Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, third from right, presides over a meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee in June. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press)

SANTA FE – Hiring more officers and deploying them to crime hot spots is a promising strategy for deterring criminal behavior, nonpartisan analysts told legislators on Monday.

Ratcheting up the severity of penalties, meanwhile, isn’t as effective a deterrent, they said.

Program evaluators working for the Legislative Finance Committee shared their findings Monday on the eve of a 30-day session during which lawmakers will consider dozens of bills aimed at attacking New Mexico’s high crime rate.

The analysts are examining criminal justice in the Albuquerque area – where crime has been climbing since 2010, even as crime has fallen across the country. Their report hasn’t been completed.

But Jon Courtney, program evaluation manager for the LFC, said national research shows that the certainty and “swiftness of being caught” are an effective way to deter crime. In Albuquerque, the size of the police force has fallen 24 percent since 2010.

“We know that adding a police officer generally leads to a positive return on investment,” Courtney said, especially if combined with “hot spot strategies” in which officers target high-crime areas.

The severity of the punishment – whether someone spends a few extra years in prison – does little to deter crime, based on national research, Courtney said.

Travis McIntyre, a program evaluator for LFC, said the committee’s research also suggests targeting repeat offenders. People with three or more arrests account for 62 percent of the arrests overall in Bernalillo County, according to Monday’s presentation.

“Focus on those few people, and you can disproportionately affect the crime rate,” McIntyre said.

Lawmakers also heard that Albuquerque isn’t the only problem. Belen, Taos, Gallup and Española each have higher crime rates per capita, according to FBI data.

“In rural communities, there’s just as big an issue,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the LFC.

The presentation comes as Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, makes crime legislation a priority for her last regular session. Her proposals include making it easier to keep defendants in jail as they await trial; allowing retired officers to return to work without giving up their pensions; and imposing stiffer penalties for criminal offenses, including a reinstatement of the death penalty.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers are also proposing financial help to allow cities and counties to hire more officers and sheriff’s deputies.

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

It’s “a crisis we’ve got to deal with,” said Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa.

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