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Lawmakers consider reviving vetoed criminal justice bills

Many bills designed to modify the state’s criminal justice system that in previous years were killed by the outgoing governor will be getting new life.

Lawmakers are preparing to reintroduce several pieces of legislation that were passed by legislators but vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez and never became law.

The Criminal Justice Reform subcommittee, made up of Republican and Democratic legislators from both houses, met in Albuquerque on Tuesday to discuss several of those measures, which are likely to be packaged together in some fashion and introduced in the next legislative session, said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the co-chair of the subcommittee. A 60-day session starts in January.

There are about 40 criminal justice bills that passed but were rejected by Gov. Martinez, who encouraged a tough-on-crime approach to try to deter crime. Democrats, who control both chambers, have rejected that approach.

Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham has said she plans to go through all the legislation vetoed by Martinez in search of ones she can support, especially those that were widely supported by members of both parties.

Maestas said lawmakers will focus initially on such measures.

“Our main goal is to create a criminal justice system that is adequately funded and prioritizes prosecuting violent criminals,” Maestas said. “In order to prioritize violent crimes we have to de-prioritize certain nonviolent crimes, and that’s what is difficult politically.”

Crime has become a hot-button issue in Albuquerque and throughout the state. The city and state have some of the highest crime rates in the country, and polls have shown crime is at the top of voters’ minds. It was a frequent point of debate in the most recent local elections.

The criminal justice bills expected to be considered again address widely varied issues. For example, one discussed Tuesday would eliminate time on parole after release for inmates sentenced to a year or less. Another would create a system that would allow geriatric inmates to be released from prison before the end of their sentence. Another would allow for people sentenced to five years of supervised probation to serve the final two years unsupervised if they don’t violate their conditions of release in the first three years.

That last piece of legislation, said Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, could be billed as an incentive for good behavior, rather than an attempt to decrease criminal penalties.

The Legislative Finance Committee in a report last week said that New Mexico’s prison population is increasing, even as nationwide figures show incarceration rates are on the decline. Many inmates are returning to prison within three years of their release because they violated the terms of their parole, as opposed to committing new crimes, according to the report.

Other bills that were discussed Tuesday include:

• A bill that calls for a halfway house in every probation and parole district throughout the state.

• A bill that calls for inmates be allowed to petition for DNA evidence to be tested if there is DNA evidence in their case but they were convicted prior to common DNA testing.

• A bill that expands who would qualify for a pre-prosecution diversion program.

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