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Child abuse measure advances

SANTA FE – With the death of a 13-year old northern New Mexico boy casting a long shadow over the Roundhouse, a renewed attempt to expand the state’s child abuse penalties to include teenage victims is one step closer to winning final approval.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 11-1 on Wednesday to approve the measure, House Bill 100, which now advances to the House floor. Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, the committee’s chairwoman, cast the lone “no” vote.

However, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, expressed concern Wednesday that the bill has been politicized – an apparent reference to past campaign mailers that have attacked Democratic opponents of the measure.

“I’d like to see the tenor of the conversation changed,” Egolf said, while also questioning why the bill has essentially remained unchanged over recent years despite drawing recurring critiques.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, said after Wednesday’s hearing that she’s open to making changes to the legislation, including potentially narrowing its application to parents, guardians or other family members.

But she also said it’s important that the state’s criminal penalties treat all children equally.

“We need to do a better job of being moral custodians of our children,” Maestas Barnes told the Journal.

Her legislation would expand New Mexico’s “Baby Brianna’s Law,” which deals with intentional child abuse resulting in death.

Currently, individuals found guilty of such a crime involving children ages 11 or younger face a life sentence, while those convicted of a similar crime against children ages 12 to 18 face up to 18 years in prison. Additional charges can also be levied by prosecutors.

The proposal has been among a slew of crime-related bills pushed by Gov. Susana Martinez in recent years but has met resistance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

This year’s bill is being debated in the aftermath of the death of 13-year old Jeremiah Valencia, who was tortured before being beaten to death, police say.

Three adults have been charged in connection with Valencia’s death, including his mother and her boyfriend, Thomas Ferguson.

Egolf said Wednesday that all lawmakers have been shaken by the tragedy and want to find ways to reduce child abuse rates. He vowed the bill will be scheduled for a House floor vote and predicted it will pass, but he questioned whether it would prevent future tragedies.

“I’m very worried that we’re giving false hope – that by passing a law we’re going to save a life,” he said.