In 2018, we ran against each other for a seat in the New Mexico State House – Democrat vs. Republican. It goes without saying that we have disagreements on a number of issues. But there are areas where we believe people from across the political spectrum can work together to solve problems facing New Mexico. One of those is criminal justice reform.
Let’s start with the broad goals. Both sides should want swift and certain justice, improvements to public safety and efficient use of taxpayer money.
Due to the economic impact of COVID-19, New Mexico is anticipating revenue shortfalls. Corrections and the criminal justice system are a significant portion of the state budget, and squarely in the crosshairs of potential cuts. Now is the time to revisit our goals and priorities. Here is what we would propose to make our criminal justice system smarter on crime and softer on taxpayers:
• Expand citations in lieu of arrest authority for law enforcement. Give law enforcement officers more freedom to cite and release individuals suspected of lower-level crimes, rather than book them into jail. This will allow law enforcement to focus on criminal activity that harms public safety and reduce the number of negative interactions between officers and their community.
• Modify how certain crimes are defined and charged. Many states have right-sized the punishment associated with certain lower-level offenses, such as drug and property crimes. This can include increasing the property theft threshold for what dollar amount of theft classifies as a felony. More than 35 states have increased their property theft threshold, while property crime continues to decrease. Making simple drug possession a misdemeanor can save our state millions of dollars without threatening public safety, while equipping people to more effectively overcome a substance-use disorder.
• Invest and expand alternatives to prison and then carefully and independently monitor outcomes. Incarceration is expensive and, by itself, not likely to reduce recidivism. Rather than locking people up, we should invest in diversion programs such as drug courts, mental health courts, and juvenile diversion courts that help people contribute to their communities. These programs are significantly less expensive over the long run and have been shown to reduce recidivism compared to prison. Moreover, we should ensure lawmakers have access to real-time data that will tell us what programs are effective, what can be done to improve programs, and what programs are not working.
• Remove sentencing enhancements for nonviolent offenses. Give judges the discretion to deviate from sentencing enhancements when it is in the best interest of justice. Forcing individuals to serve sentences that don’t match the severity of their crime benefits no one. We can preserve public safety and allow for more proportional sentences that don’t strain taxpayer resources.
• Strengthen community supervision. Finally, we should reduce revocations to prison from community supervision. Revocations for technical violations are a main driver of many state prison populations. Imprisoning large numbers of individuals based on non-criminal actions does not increase public safety. Lawmakers can also push for probation reform for good behavior and preventing people from going back to jail for technical violations while on probation, giving courts needed flexibility to release people who’ve shown themselves to be adequately reformed.
The point of these reforms is to get us out of the ineffective war of words about who is “tougher on crime,” which is both expensive and ineffective. We are wasting limited taxpayer money and unintentionally creating career criminals.
We need to be smarter about crime. Lawmakers have an opportunity to make our state safer and give thousands of New Mexicans the tools to successfully reintegrate into their communities and return to their families.
While we may not agree on everything, we are committed to bringing people together to make our criminal justice system more just.