Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – After several recent high-profile shootings in Albuquerque, violent crime appears poised to be a major topic of debate during the 30-day legislative session that starts in January.
House Democrats from New Mexico’s largest city announced Thursday a comprehensive “crime-fighting” package that would include changes to the state’s pretrial detention system, expanded mental health treatment programs and increased criminal penalties.
In all, the package includes 16 proposals, though details on some of the items are not likely to be fully fleshed out until they are filed as bills.
And at least some of the provisions, such as extending prosecutors’ time limit for filing second-degree murder charges, have been previously pushed by House Republicans, who have urged Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to call a special session focused on crime.
In response to the Democrats’ announcement, House GOP floor leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, accused Democrats of helping to create a “rampant” crime problem.
“We hope they are as serious about addressing crime as they have been about coddling criminals throughout our communities,” Townsend said. “We also hope they start to give law enforcement the credit and respect they deserve. The disregard Democrat legislators have for our officers is simply not conducive to turning things around.”
However, Rep. Meredith Dixon, D-Albuquerque, said she’s hopeful some crime-related proposals, including a bill dealing with penalties for stealing copper materials, can win bipartisan support.
She also said lawmakers and top state officials increasingly agree a comprehensive approach is needed to reverse an increase in violent crime across New Mexico.
“There’s probably more consensus that stiffer penalties aren’t the only answer,” said Dixon, who recently accompanied law enforcement officers on patrol in her foothills-area legislative district.
Democratic lawmakers blocked many GOP-backed crime bills from advancing during the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez, including a push to bring back the death penalty for those convicted of certain violent offenses.
However, proposals dealing with tougher penalties for drunken driving and distributing child pornography have been signed into law in recent years.
More recently, crime-related proposals were not a primary focus of this year’s 60-day legislative session, as measures dealing with pandemic relief, abortion, public schools and legalizing recreational cannabis all drew lengthy debates.
But things could be different in 2022, after the recent shooting of three Albuquerque police officers – another officer was also injured in the incident – and the shooting death of a 13-year-old boy at his middle school have prompted calls for action.
Albuquerque has already set a yearly record for homicides with 86 suspected killings, and other types of violent crime have also increased, though the metro area’s auto theft rate has dropped by 42% since 2017.
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the proposed crime package backed by 18 House Democrats from Albuquerque would take a “multi-faceted approach” to addressing violent crime.
“What’s become evident is that while we have been increasing our investments in long-term solutions like education, families, and mental and behavioral health, much more needs to be done to address the violence happening today,” Chasey said in a statement.
For her part, Lujan Grisham has said she wants to see changes to New Mexico’s pretrial detention system aimed at making it easier to keep people charged with violent offenses behind bars pending trial, though some fellow Democrats oppose such a plan.
The governor, who has the power to determine which non-budgetary bills can be discussed during 30-day legislative sessions, has also said she wants lawmakers to approve $100 million to fund an additional 1,000 police officer positions throughout the state during next year’s session.
Meanwhile, the legislative focus on crime-related issues comes with a new election cycle on the horizon. All 70 House seats will be up for election in 2022, along with statewide offices for governor, attorney general and secretary of state.