Editorial: Governor, lawmakers have opportunity to join forces and fight for our safety and futures - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Governor, lawmakers have opportunity to join forces and fight for our safety and futures

There’s not a lot of talk in Santa Fe these days about expunging criminal records. Or legalizing drugs, expanding alcohol sales, reforming the legal doctrine of qualified immunity or defunding police.

A record-shattering 117 homicides in Albuquerque last year and violent crime across the state have flipped the political script from a year ago, and rightly so. A Journal poll in October found 87% of Albuquerque residents were concerned about the crime rate in the city. The number jumped to 90% among those 65 and older. Overall, 35% of respondents reported feeling unsafe in the city, and for good reason. Crime dominated the mayoral race last fall and remains a top priority among state lawmakers.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, Attorney General Hector Balderas, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez, top law enforcement officials and legislators from both sides of the aisle announced the governor’s four “get tough on crime” measures at a news conference on Thursday. While bills are still being drafted, the Journal Editorial Board supports the foundational ideas behind each:

Rebuttable presumption

The proposal that’s grabbing the most attention, and pushback from defense attorneys, would redefine the parameters for pretrial detention for those facing the most serious violent crimes. It’s prompted by the release of high-profile defendants pending trial who have gone on to commit heinous new crimes.

The state’s chief public defender, Bennett Baur, says people on pretrial release have not been a significant cause for increases in violent crime. Torrez and others dispute that. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, has not been filed, but Torrez says it would add more steps and extra scrutiny for judges in pretrial detention hearings involving a narrow group of violent crimes.

Under rebuttable presumption, certain crimes would make a defendant presumed to be too dangerous to be released while awaiting trial, and defendants would have the chance to rebut that. The judge would take that information, as well as other factors, into consideration when determining whether a person should be held pending trial.

The governor says rebuttable presumption would put a “wedge” in the revolving door of recidivism. Torrez, who is running for state attorney general, told Journal editors and reporters in a Zoom meeting Friday “I continue to believe that the impact that these individuals are having (on public safety) is substantial.”

Tougher penalties

Second-degree murder: Another of the governor’s priorities would increase penalties for certain violent crimes. One measure would increase sentencing for second-degree murder from 15 years to 18 years and remove the statute of limitations, which currently expires after six years. Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, has sponsored this reform for years and said “we are the only state in the nation that has a statute of limitation on murder.”

Using a firearm: Several other proposals would increase penalties for gun crimes. Unlawful possession of a handgun would become a felony rather than a misdemeanor. Fleeing a law enforcement officer when it results in injury would become a third-degree felony and a second-degree felony if it results in great bodily harm. The proposal would also enhance the penalties for brandishing a firearm during a drug transaction. “The signal here is there is risk to you, you’re a risk to us, and we aren’t going to tolerate it anymore,” the governor said Thursday.

More law enforcement

The governor’s fourth proposal includes a 19% raise for N.M. State Police officers and a recommendation to create a $100 million fund to recruit, hire and retain law enforcement and staff in departments around the state. When crime victims give up on calling police because responses take too long/never happen, you need more people in uniform answering calls for service.

There are numerous other crime proposals drafted so far; given how outsized the issue is in New Mexicans’ lives, here are a few that deserve debate:

  • House Bill 64, introduced by Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, D-Albuquerque, would stiffen sentencing enhancements for brandishing a firearm. Another bill offered by Garcia, HB 16, would appropriate $5 million to the Crime Victims Reparations Commission to fund advocates for victims of gun violence and violent crime.
  • House Bill 53, also introduced by Rehm, would strengthen courts’ authority to issue a warrant to conduct chemical tests for those suspected of operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Rehm, a retired police officer and sheriff’s department captain, also has HB 26, which would make carrying a firearm while trafficking a drug a third-degree felony. HB 28 would increase the penalty for a felon possessing a firearm. HB 29 would define “organized retail crime” in the criminal code. HB 31 would expand the types of felony convictions that qualify for life imprisonment under the state’s three strikes law, so narrow it has never been used.
  • Senate Bill 1836, by Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, makes it a fourth-degree felony to make a shooting threat.

New Mexicans who have had a family member slain or friend robbed at gunpoint don’t care if the reforms come from Republicans or Democrats. They just want something done. Now. So lawmakers should stay focused. Much of the state’s future is predicated on reducing crime. Remember the record number of homicides and Albuquerque’s unsuccessful bid to land U.S. Space Command? Lawmakers should.

Pass a budget. Work on crime. And get it done in time.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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