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Measure for sentencing flexibility moves to Senate

In this Feb. 19 file photo, Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, answers question during a debate on the House floor. She is sponsoring a bill to make sentencing enhancements optional, not mandatory, for habitual offenders. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A proposal headed to the state Senate would remove mandatory sentencing enhancements for habitual offenders – an attempt to give judges more flexibility in considering defendants with prior felony convictions.

The legislation, House Bill 114, also would remove possession of drugs as one of the prior convictions that can trigger an increased sentence for habitual offenders.

It passed the House 45-25 Sunday and now heads to the Senate.

Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, a Mesilla Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said the measure would give judges flexibility they need for defendants struggling with addiction. They could still impose the sentencing enhancement – generally an extra one, four or eight years, depending on how many prior felony convictions defendant has – but it would be optional.

Lara Cadena said the enhancements create incredible disparities in how different offenders are sentenced for the same underlying crime.

The enhancements, she said, haven’t succeeded in improving public safety, and some defendants rack up repeated convictions because of an underlying addiction that can be solved with treatment.

“Substance-use disorder in New Mexico is a health care issue,” Lara Cadena said, “and we as a state haven’t gotten anything out of having these mandatory sentences on the books.”

The bill won approval over the objection of every Republican in the House.

Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said New Mexico doesn’t have the necessary treatment programs to make it safe to let repeat offenders out of prison earlier.

“It’s not helping them one iota,” she said, “and it’s not helping our communities.”

One Democrat, Rep. Marian Matthews of Albuquerque, voted against the bill. One independent, Rep. Phelps Anderson of Roswell, voted in favor.

Analysts for the state Corrections Department said the bill would likely decrease incarceration costs, though they didn’t provide a savings estimate because of uncertainty over how judges would use the new discretion.

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