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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A package of bills signed into law Wednesday will reshape parts of New Mexico’s criminal justice system – allowing people to seek expungement of their criminal records, limiting the use of solitary confinement and promoting the sharing of data among law enforcement agencies.
The burst of action by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also included approval of “ban-the-box” legislation that prohibits employers from asking job-seekers about their criminal history on an initial application.
She also signed a host of bills touching on other topics – including approval to add New Mexico to a compact of states planning to award their Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote.
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, faces a Friday deadline to act on bills passed in the final days of the 2019 legislative session, which ended March 16. She has about 80 bills left to sign or veto.
Lujan Grisham said Wednesday’s approvals included “several smart criminal justice reform initiatives” that are good for New Mexico.
“We will never, ever weaken our resolve to be tough on the worst offenders,” she said in a written statement. “But we will responsibly take steps to assist our friends and neighbors who deserve a second chance to contribute to our society.”
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas – an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of bills on expungement and solitary confinement – said the new laws will help reduce crime.
“It’s a tremendous leap into the future for crime fighting here in New Mexico,” he said in an interview. “We’ve focused so much on penalties as a deterrent that it took us longer than most other states to realize that lowering crime means reducing recidivism and integrating folks back into the community.”
Approval of the expungement legislation drew criticism from open-government advocates.
House Bill 370 will allow people to seek court approval to wipe an arrest or conviction from their records, in certain circumstances.
“The bill violates the most basic principle of the public’s right to know by erasing what is and has historically been a public record,” the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said in a written statement. “It would let the courts wipe away the public record of arrests and convictions as though they never occurred. This would set a very dangerous precedent.”
Here’s a look at some of the other bills approved by Lujan Grisham on Wednesday:
• House Bill 55, agreeing to elect the president by national popular vote, if enough other states also sign the compact to form a majority in the Electoral College.
• House Bill 267, calling on the New Mexico sentencing commission to create a data-sharing network aimed at making it easier for police, prosecutors and other agencies to track offenders who use aliases or commit crimes in different communities throughout the state.
• House Bill 364, prohibiting the use of solitary confinement for inmates who are under 18 or pregnant. There would also be limits on solitary confinement for inmates with a serious mental disability.
• House Bill 546, outlining new rules concerning violations by oil and gas operators and management of “produced,” or brackish, water.
• Senate Bill 96, prohibiting employers from asking about criminal history on an initial application. They could still ask applicants about their history of arrests or convictions later in the hiring process. Employers could also make clear in an advertisement that they will conduct a background check or that a conviction could disqualify them from employment.
• House Bill 447, requiring the Children, Youth and Families and Public Education departments to create a tracking system for students who move among districts and CYFD services, to ensure they don’t fall through the cracks.
• House Bill 342, allowing for an expansion of a pre-prosecution diversion program for nonviolent offenders to help unclog the court system.
• Senate Bill 323, reducing penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. There will be a $50 fine for people caught with up to a half an ounce of marijuana.