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Standing in the parking lot of a cleaning, alterations and repairs shop on Zuni near San Mateo – in front of a mural dedicated to people lost to gun violence – the governor, mayor and top law enforcement officials unveiled their “tough on crime” proposals.
“This is not just an Albuquerque issue, this is a state issue, this is a neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community issue,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “New Mexico can, and will, do better.”
The governor’s public safety package includes four proposals to address crime in the upcoming legislative session. But defense attorneys are pushing back, saying the proposals will do little to make New Mexico safer and have not taken the entirety of the criminal justice system into account.
Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said his office has not seen the actual bills yet.
“However, I’m concerned that the focus is all on police, prosecutors and punishment, and seems to ignore the effects that the proposals would have on the courts, public defenders, jails and prisons, and on what happens when anyone accused of a crime is eventually released,” Baur said in a statement. “The evidence is that people on pretrial release are not a significant cause of the increase in violent crime, and, in fact, incarcerating more people before trial, or with increased penalties, will further harm our communities.”
The group that gathered in the parking lot for Thursday’s news conference included Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina, New Mexico State Police Chief Tim Johnson, Attorney General Hector Balderas, 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez, Mayor Tim Keller, and several legislators from both sides of the aisle. Traffic roared past and one man, leaving the cleaners, shouted out “you rock, Governor!” as he passed by.
The first proposal unveiled deals with pretrial detention. Prosecutors currently need to convince a judge to hold defendants they consider high risk pending trial.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, would make it so people charged with certain violent crimes would be held in jail unless the defense convinces the court the defendant doesn’t pose a risk. Prosecutors would still have to file pretrial motions in order for people to be held.
“This puts a wedge in this revolving door,” Lujan Grisham said. “It doesn’t minimize our constitutional responsibilities to every single New Mexican irrespective of their income but it also makes really clear that the constitutional right to be safe in your home and communities is also an area that we must maintain and do something significant about.”
The issue is one that Torrez, the district attorney, has been advocating for several years. At Thursday’s press conference he said he was hopeful going into the legislative session and urged lawmakers not to waste the opportunity.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who was a primary sponsor of the current bail reform law approved in 2016, said the law made important strides that included eliminating bond for defendants determined to pose a clear danger to the public.
He said he shares in the frustration over rising violent crime rates in Albuquerque, adding that he doesn’t understand why some high-profile defendants have been released pending trial. But he said changing the law to force low-income defendants represented by a public defender to convince a judge that they should be released until trial could be problematic.
“There are some constitutional safeguards that we have to make sure we don’t just throw aside,” Wirth said. “I think we have to be very careful.”
Jennifer Burrill, president-elect of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said the proposal seemed designed to change the rules just for Albuquerque, since the remaining 12 judicial districts are not having the same problems.
“We know that a very few number of cases where people were released – even though a preventative detention motion was filed – a very few number of people have gone out to commit new violent crimes…,” she said.
The second two priorities involve increasing penalties for certain violent crimes.
The first proposed legislation would increase sentencing for second-degree murder from 15 years to 18 years in prison and remove the statute of limitations.
Another proposal would increase penalties for gun crimes, including making unlawful possession of a handgun a felony instead of a misdemeanor; making fleeing a law enforcement officer when it results in injury a third-degree felony and a second-degree felony if it results in great bodily harm; and enhancing the penalties for brandishing a firearm during a drug transaction.
“If you know you’re going to A) be released or B) it’s a misdemeanor or it’s a fourth degree felony – the lowest felony with minimal jail time – it’s no real risk for you engaging in this criminal activity,” Lujan Grisham said. “The signal here is there is risk to you, you’re a risk to us, and we aren’t going to tolerate it anymore.”
Burrill, however, said studies have shown that there is no evidence that keeping people in jail for a longer period of time makes them less likely to commit a crime when they are released.
“In fact it’s the exact opposite,” she said. “The longer people are traumatized and are in prison the more likely they are to be unstable when they come back into the community.”
Law enforcement fund
The final proposal includes an executive budget recommendation of $100 million to be put into a fund to recruit, hire and retain law enforcement and staff in departments around the state. It also includes a 19% raise for New Mexico State Police officers.
“You can’t wait a year for resources to hire police, we can’t go to every legislative session, there has to be a meaningful tool so that we’re not stealing police officers and law enforcement officers from one jurisdiction to another,” Lujan Grisham said. “We have shortages statewide. This means that we can recruit, retain, do the right training, and send a signal to everyone in this state, and particularly to our men and women who put on a uniform every day: We need you.”
While more money would go toward law enforcement, Burrill wondered about the effect more officers would have on the rest of the criminal justice system if it was not staffed up in the same way.
“The reality is that many more officers without increasing the number of judges, prosecutors and public defenders, will cause the system to come to a grinding halt…,” she said. “When the court can’t handle that many cases because they don’t have the resources to do so, more cases are going to get dismissed.”
Metro area crime
The site of Thursday’s announcement was the same place Keller signed an executive order to establish a Gun Violence Prevention and Intervention Task Force in October. The task force was an action item in the Metro Crime Initiative – which Keller convened over the summer in order to bring local leaders together to address crime in the area.
On Thursday, Keller said given Albuquerque’s position in the crossroads of the state, it needs help to address its issues. The city saw 117 homicides in 2021 – far surpassing previous years.
“(The Albuquerque Police Department) has made a number of changes and we’re doing a lot of things different when it comes to investigations with the DA’s office,” Keller said. “We’re doing a lot of things different when it comes to auto theft and working with our statewide partners, and when it comes to shoplifting with the attorney general. But we also know we need some help from the Legislature. That’s what we’re so excited about here today.”
Journal Capitol Bureau chief Dan Boyd contributed to this report.