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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A package of anti-crime legislation taking shape in the state House would toughen criminal penalties, encourage community policing and make it easier for officers to secure treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The broad proposal is the result of negotiations by a handful of Democratic and Republican lawmakers aiming to improve public safety in New Mexico, especially in Albuquerque, where homicides hit a record high last year.
The bill also has the backing of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has urged fellow Democrats to embrace some of the stiffer criminal penalties sought by Republican legislators.
Democratic Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil and Republican Rep. Bill Rehm, both of Albuquerque, said the proposal would attack crime from multiple angles. It would encourage the use of community policing to prevent crime, for example, but also toughen penalties for use of a firearm to commit a crime.
“Crime affects every single of one us in our communities,” Hochman-Vigil said Saturday.
Violent crime, Rehm said, is so high in Albuquerque that it prompted a visit – and the promise of federal help – from U.S. Attorney General William Barr last year.
“Too many of our communities are seeing repeat offenders in their neighborhoods carrying a firearm,” Rehm said.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee assembled the anti-crime legislation Saturday, rolling four separate ideas into one bill, now known as House Bill 6. The committee voted 13-0 to move the legislation forward, sending it to the full House for consideration.
The package proposes to:
⋄ Increase the potential criminal penalty for brandishing a firearm in the commission of a crime. The sentencing enhancement would climb from one year
to three years for a first offense, though judges would also have the option of suspending the extra time.
“We’re targeting the most violent and threatening members of our community who use a gun,” Rehm said.
⋄ Stiffen the penalty for being a felon in possession of a firearm, making it a third-degree felony with a basic sentence of three years, rather than a fourth-degree felony with a basic sentence of 18 months.
⋄ Allow the state’s law enforcement protection fund to be tapped for training officers in “community-oriented policing” techniques aimed at preventing crime in neighborhoods. Cities and counties could apply for money from the fund to pay for training and recruiting officers to engage in community policing.
⋄ Make it easier for law enforcement officers to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The bill would add PTSD to the list of conditions presumed to have been caused by their work as officers and require employers to provide medical treatment for it.
Democratic Rep. Marian Matthews of Albuquerque said more officers are dying of suicide than in the line of duty. The goal, she said, is to help “people who are on the first line who experience substantial trauma because of the work they do.”
During Saturday’s committee hearing, the provisions for increased criminal
penalties drew mixed reaction.
Paul Haidle, an attorney and senior policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the passage of tougher penalties may make a statement but it won’t actually improve public safety.
Kim Chavez Cook of the Law Offices of the Public Defender made a similar argument.
“Increasing penalties doesn’t deter crime,” she said.
Supporters said enhanced penalties are a sensible way to take dangerous people off the streets for a longer period of time.
“The chamber believes that people who commit violent crimes with guns should face stiffer penalties – period,” said J.D. Bullington, a lobbyist for the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
The proposal, House Joint Resolution 1, has won House approval in each of the previous three years, only to die in the Senate each time. It would increase annual distributions out of the Land Grant Permanent Fund from 5% to 6%, generating about $180 million in funding a year, mostly for early childhood programs.Supporters of the proposal said the extra investments in prekindergarten, home visiting programs for new parents and other services would be a powerful way to boost educational outcomes.
Opponents said the proposal would slow the growth of the permanent fund – already a critical source of funding for schools – and eventually provide the state with less revenue every year than if it had been left alone at the 5% rate.
The proposal won approval 44-25.