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On the heels of a record-shattering year for homicides in Albuquerque, violent crime appears poised to be a major topic of debate during this year’s 30-day legislative session.
House Democrats from New Mexico’s largest city announced a comprehensive “crime-fighting” package in September that would include changes to the state’s bail reform law, expanded mental health treatment programs and increased criminal penalties.
At least some of the provisions, such as extending prosecutors’ time limits for filing second-degree murder charges, have been previously pushed by House Republicans, who urged Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last year to call a special session focused on crime.
Facing a bruising reelection campaign this year, Lujan Grisham has thrown her support behind a proposal to revamp New Mexico’s pretrial detention system to allow people charged with certain crimes to be held until trial unless their defense attorney can convince the court otherwise.
“I believe a rebuttable presumption for individuals accused of violent crimes can be a wedge in the revolving door of repeat violent offenses that have characterized the worst aspects of the crime our state continues to experience,” Lujan Grisham said in an August statement.
While the proposal is backed by 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez and Albuquerque law enforcement officials, it has drawn opposition from the Law Offices of the Public Defender and other groups.
“I’m extremely concerned about allowing the government to hold people in jail for months just because someone said you did something,” said Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur.
In the run-up to this year’s session, Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, has filed legislation, House Bill 27, shifting the burden of proof to the defense when a defendant is charged with a crime of violence, is currently out on conditions of release and commits another felony, or if they have a history of failing to appear for court hearings.
The change would make it so that the defense would have to persuade the court to release a defendant in those cases, compared with current rules, under which a prosecutor has to persuade the court to hold a defendant.
The University of New Mexico’s Institute for Social Research has studied how many more people would be held in jail if the changes went into effect.
Using Rehm’s 2021 proposed legislation – which is similar to what he is proposing for the 2022 session but adds that a person should be detained if they were previously convicted of a felony or had violated any conditions of release – the institute found that from July 2017 to March 2020, between 797 and 1,969 more people would have been detained.
Meanwhile, 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.
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.