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Deal with the root cause of crime

In the search for a solution to New Mexico’s crime problems, it would be helpful if our state representatives focused their attention on what has been found to work in deterring or reducing crime rather than resorting to the same old mandatory sentencing legislation that does little more than make people feel good.

In order to reduce crime, we need to understand what things promote it. In December 2017, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a report that stated, “Child maltreatment roughly doubles the probability that an individual engages in many types of crime. This is even true if we compare twins, one of whom was maltreated when the other was not.” In other words, the more the children of New Mexico suffer trauma, the greater our future crime problems will be. This research group concluded that spending money on our children has an enormous potential to reduce crime, and that any investment in this area will more than pay for itself in the long run.

Yet, New Mexico refuses to do this. We continue to rank at the bottom of most lists associated with the health and safety of our children. The (Jan. 21) Sunday Journal recently reported on what it described as an “enduring crisis.” According to the (Searchlight New Mexico pieces in the) Journal, for the last 30 years we have known about the causes of childhood maltreatment but have done little to abate them. Interestingly, in this same time period our prison population has tripled, resulting in a truly alarming statistic; 10 percent of New Mexico children have a parent who has served time.

It seems we prefer to spend our resources on increasingly longer sentences rather than addressing problems in our educational and child service administrations. The foster parent system is on the front line when it comes to dealing with childhood trauma victims, and as such they can make a huge difference in our future crime rates. Well supported and properly funded foster parents can put a stop to the cycle of abuse that predictably leads to crime as these kids mature. Yet time and time again we hear of tragedies in this underfunded and poorly supported agency.

Criminal defense lawyers, who represent these kids and their parents, see the system from a unique perspective. We understand that fundamentally the vast majority of those we represent are good people worthy of help. They almost always want a better life for their own children but often are incapable of providing it. They are frequently victims of childhood abuse themselves and have the corresponding mental health and addiction problems that go with it. We spend our time advocating for sentences that address these underlying problems, sentences that value rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

However, all too often what we see is punishment. Lengthy prison terms in dangerous institutions where solitary confinement, sexual assault and violence are commonplace. Things we know promote future crime.

The National Institute of Justice has found that “increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime.” The Legislative Finance Council recently cited this information to the N.M. Legislature and added that, “sending an individual convicted of a crime to prison isn’t an effective way to deter future crime.” Yet, every year our governor calls for longer sentences and introduces laws which remove the judge from the sentencing process.

Punishment needs to fit the crime, which means judicial discretion is essential and mandatory sentences are harmful. Every year the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association advocates against these mandatory minimum sentences and in favor of social reforms including the abolishment of solitary confinement, the improvement of mental health services and drug treatment facilities – things with a track record of reducing future criminal conduct. We recognize although it may feel good to sentence people to prison for enormous periods of time, it does little in the prevention of crime.

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