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Bipartisan crime package clears first committee

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Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bipartisan package of legislation that would make a host of changes to New Mexico’s criminal justice system – ranging from pre-prosecution programs to parole – began moving through the state House on Wednesday.

The proposals, House Bills 342 and 564, contain a variety of ideas that supporters say have either passed a chamber of the Legislature previously with broad support or are the result of work with experts at the nonprofit Council of State Governments.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bills, said many of the changes are relatively small but work well together.

“I think collectively they make a huge step forward in terms of ensuring justice and due process,” he said, “but also allowing prosecutors to focus on violent criminals,” rather than nonviolent offenders.

The first piece of the package, House Bill 342, cleared the House Judiciary Committee on an 11-2 vote Wednesday. Democrats backed the bill without opposition, while the committee’s four Republicans were evenly split.

Supporters say the bill would make it easier to expand a diversion program that’s aimed at unclogging the court system. Prosecutors would have more flexibility to put nonviolent offenders into a probation-like program with drug testing and other conditions, giving defendants an incentive to succeed – because they would avoid indictment if they complied and completed the program.

The defendant wouldn’t be required to pay to enroll, removing a barrier that limits participation now, supporters say.

The proposal also touches on procedures for eyewitness identification of defendants and a fund that provides state compensation to victims of crime, among other provisions.

The second part of the crime package, House Bill 564, focuses on probation and parole. Supporters said some of the changes could reduce the number of people sent back to prison based on technical violations, not a new criminal charge.

The measure would require a needs and risk assessment before people are sent back to prison after, say, a failed drug test.

House Bill 564 won approval without opposition.

The sponsors of the bills include Democratic Reps. Maestas and Gail Chasey and Republican Sen. Sander Rue, all of Albuquerque.

Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, is also a co-sponsor of House Bill 342.

Both proposals now head to the floor for consideration by the entire House.

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