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One bill would increase sentences for those caught using a firearm to commit a crime.
Another would increase the penalties for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
And a third would make it a crime to take a gun to a drug deal.
These are three “tough-on-crime” bills making their way through the Legislature this session, with the backing of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham – who said the measures are also “smart on crime by targeting the worst of the worst.”
“The bills would pave the way for judges to impose longer prison sentences for violent criminals, and that would keep our communities safer,” Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s spokesman, wrote in a statement. “And while no law can deter all crime, these bills certainly would prevent some crime by keeping violent felons off our streets for longer periods of time.”
At a briefing last week, Lujan Grisham said her administration is taking an “all-of-the-above” approach to battling high crime rates in Albuquerque and other parts of the state, which includes tougher criminal penalties and efforts to provide more substance abuse and mental health treatment programs.
“I’m trying to do all of that,” she said. “I don’t know when those things became mutually exclusive.”
However, civil rights advocates, community groups and defense lawyers say the bills increasing penalties are not the answer and in fact say more severe sentences do little to deter crime or make communities safer in the long run.
New Mexico SAFE – a coalition of more than 30 faith-based, nonprofit or community organizations representing the homeless, women, Native Americans, immigrants and others – graded the three bills and didn’t award any higher than a “C.” The coalition analyzes each piece of legislation on whether it would make the community safer and whether it’s apolitical, fiscally responsible and evidence-based.
Jennifer Burrill, vice president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said she sees the bills as consistent with “failed tough-on-crime policies” that don’t do anything to address drug addiction or mental illness.
“I think it’s a backwards movement in terms of trying to address the root causes of crime in our communities,” Burrill said. “I don’t think that this is going to solve anything. If the goal is to reduce crime, this won’t do it. This will only incarcerate and warehouse people.”
However, Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, who introduced the three bills, said he hopes they will curb the persistently high rates of violent crime in the state’s largest city. Police say about two-thirds of last year’s record number of homicides in Albuquerque were committed with a gun and hundreds of people were shot and injured in the metropolitan area over the past year.
“We have violence all across the state, but in particular in Albuquerque right now,” Rehm said. “What we’re trying to do in a bipartisan way… is push these bills to get them on through to try to address some of the violence we see.”
He said he believes the bills would make criminals think twice about getting a gun or using one during a crime.
“We know that being a criminal, you make bad decisions,” Rehm said. “If you’re in possession of a firearm and you’re already making a bad decision … this is going to go ahead and say, ‘Don’t have a firearm with you.’ ”
Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez said in a statement that he supports a multifaceted approach to tackling violent crime.
“That includes keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals and enhanced penalties for anyone who uses a firearm in the commission of a crime,” wrote Michael Patrick, the DA’s spokesman. “He strongly supports these proposals and believes they will help prosecutors better protect our community from harm.”
All three bills, House Bill 35, House Bill 113 and House Bill 114, have already cleared one committee and will be heard next in the House Judiciary Committee.
They will also be part of a larger, bipartisan crime bill package, Rehm said. He said he didn’t know all of the bills that will be included in that package.
House Bill 35 would increase the sentencing enhancement for using a gun to commit a crime from one year to three years for a first offense, and from three years to five years for the second offense.
New Mexico SAFE said each count a person is charged with could be separately enhanced, making it so even a first-time offender could receive 10 to 15 extra years. This could also have the effect of significantly increasing the number of people in New Mexico prisons.
“Moreover, the enhancement time is mandatory; a judge does not have discretion to suspend that prison time in favor of probation, no matter the circumstances,” the scorecard says. “Meanwhile, an offender need not even pull the trigger to receive a firearm enhancement; not a single bullet need be fired.”
House Bill 113 would change the crime of being a felon in possession of a firearm from a fourth-degree felony to a third-degree felony, meaning a basic sentence would double, from 18 months to three years. It also would expand the definition of a “felon” to include anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony. Currently, the definition includes only those who have completed a sentence in the past 10 years.
Burrill said for her personally it’s the most troubling of the crime bills proposed this year.
“It makes us lose sight of humanity, that people grow and change,” she said. “One of the things we see with just a simple felon in possession of a firearm (charge) is that, let’s say, someone moves back in with their parents and their dad has a gun in the house, they can still be charged with felon in possession of a firearm because it was within their household.”
House Bill 114 would make it a crime – a third-degree felony – to carry a firearm while trafficking a controlled substance.
New Mexico SAFE pointed out that drug trafficking is already a second-degree felony for a first offense and carries a basic sentence of nine years. The bill would create a new crime with an additional three-year sentence, and a person could be charged with it regardless of whether a gun was used, fired or even shown.
Steven Robert Allen, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said he thinks a better use of resources would be to invest in substance abuse treatment and programs that lift people out of poverty.
“If one thing is for certain, it’s that the war on drugs and the resultant mass incarceration crisis that’s been caused over the past several decades hasn’t done anything to increase public safety in our communities,” Allen said.
Journal staff writer Dan Boyd contributed to this report.