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SANTA FE – A legislative package moving quickly in the state Senate focuses on law enforcement retention, training and hiring practices – rather than stiffer criminal penalties – as lawmakers take aim at New Mexico’s high rate of violent crime.
The measure would also add three judges and make grants available for strengthening the supervision of criminal defendants who are released while they await trial.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said the legislation is just a start given the constraints of a 30-day session and complexity of the criminal justice system.
He unveiled the proposal, Senate Bill 231, during a joint meeting Monday of the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees.
The proposal cleared the judiciary panel without opposition after about two hours of debate and testimony.
“This is not a big bold change where big bold change is needed,” Cervantes said, “but it does some important things.”
Lawmakers also heard from the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Michael E. Vigil, who said the judiciary plans its own changes intended to streamline court hearings for defendants and ensure law enforcement is alerted immediately if someone cuts off an ankle monitor anywhere in the state or enters a prohibited zone.
The crime bill backed by Cervantes incorporates ideas from some bills passed by the state House and adds new ones as well.
Lawmakers are also considering a handful of proposals to stiffen criminal penalties, but they aren’t included in the legislation backed by Cervantes.
In fact, his committee on Monday stripped enhanced penalties from a House-approved bill targeting second-degree murder, reflecting the Senate’s skepticism that stiffer penalties deter crime.
The crime package assembled by Cervantes and contained in Senate Bill 231 includes:
– Retention bonuses of 5% for law enforcement officers every five years they stay on the job through 20 years of service.
– Splitting the Law Enforcement Academy Board into two panels, one focusing on training and the other on officer misconduct.
– Establishing a statewide database on officer’s use of force, termination and civil judgments related to their work. Law enforcement agencies would be required to consult the database when making hiring decisions.
– Expanding the scope of what state crime reduction grants can be used for.
– Adding a District Court judge in the Albuquerque area and two others elsewhere in the state.
– Establishing a statewide violence intervention program modeled on a pilot program in Albuquerque. It would call for intervening with victims of violence who are likely to retaliate with their own violence.
Senate Bill 231 would work in conjunction with the main budget legislation, House Bill 2, which includes raises of almost 16% for State Police officers and increased funding for pretrial services.
“It’s got to be a balanced approach that we deal with crime,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said.
The final version of Cervantes’ bill may also require the judiciary’s pretrial services division to share location data with law enforcement upon request for criminal investigations.
Albuquerque police say they need quick access to location data when a defendant who has been released with an ankle monitor is suspected of a crime.
It’s “critical to get the information immediately,” Damon Martinez, a public safety policy adviser for the city of Albuquerque and a former U.S. attorney, told senators.
A proposal requiring the sharing of data, Senate Bill 225, passed the Judiciary Committee without objection Monday, and senators indicated it may be rolled into the broader crime legislation crafted by Cervantes.
The House is considering similar legislation, in a revised version of House Bill 5.
The Cervantes bill could move quickly. It passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, advancing quickly in the final days of the session.
The legislative session ends at noon Thursday.
Vigil, the Supreme Court justice, said the judiciary is planning changes intended to strengthen the monitoring of pretrial defendants statewide. Ankle monitors are watched around the clock in Albuquerque but the courts intend to expand 24-7 monitoring statewide.
He also said the court plans to consider rule changes that would consolidate pretrial detention hearings and preliminary hearings to determine probable cause “so the same resources don’t have to be coming in twice.”
A handful of proposals to stiffen criminal penalties have cleared the state House, but senators are showing skepticism.
In Monday’s hearings, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee eliminated stiffer penalties from legislation passed by the House for second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder.
The panel, however, left intact the part of the bill that would eliminate the six-year statute of limitations on second-degree murder, a change intended to give prosecutors more time to bring charges in those cases.
Republican senators opposed removing the stiffer penalties but supported moving the bill forward despite the amendments.
“It sure isn’t what I was quite hoping for,” Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, said.
The proposal, House Bill 79, heads next to the full Senate for consideration. If approved there, it would go back to the House for consideration of the Senate changes to the bill.