Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Legislators hear plenty about what is not working in New Mexico.
But they got a peek at something unusual this month during a meeting of the influential Legislative Finance Committee: examples of what works to combat violent crime.
Jennifer Doleac, an economics professor at Texas A&M University and director of the Justice Tech Lab, outlined to legislators a host of crime-fighting strategies backed by academic research.
The ideas range from hiring more police officers to offering leniency to first-time offenders. Streetlights, parks and summer jobs for teenagers all came up.
Doleac also touched on strategies that she said have little deterrent effect – such as lengthening prison sentences – and she acknowledged policy trade-offs for some options.
The challenges in New Mexico are, of course, immense. The state had the nation’s second-highest violent crime rate and third-highest poverty rate in 2020, according to state and federal data.
But state lawmakers are evaluating the ideas offered by experts.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat who leads the key budget-writing committee in the House, said the policy research presented this month certainly will influence her decision-making on crime going forward.
“It’s obviously a systemic issue,” Lundstrom said in an interview. “You cannot fund just one piece of the system and expect that you’re going to see success.”
Republican Rep. Gail Armstrong of Magdalena said she, too, was struck by the need to embrace a combination of strategies to address crime. But the evidence, she said, supports lawmakers’ push to increase salaries, and enhance the recruitment and retention of police officers.
People who commit crimes “just don’t want to get caught,” Armstrong said. “I honestly think accountability is a huge issue, whether it’s a minor crime or a major crime. These darned thieves and the bad guys need to be held accountable.”
Rep. Meredith Dixon, an Albuquerque Democrat who has sponsored anti-crime legislation, said she wasn’t necessarily convinced by every idea presented to lawmakers, but appreciated the nonpartisan explanation of what’s been shown to work.
She was struck, she said, by research on the impact of streetlights, cameras and access to health care.
“These are other ways we can move the needle without creating new crimes or locking more people up,” Dixon said.
The presentation came as lawmakers prepare to hear new revenue estimates next month and begin laying the groundwork for the next budget.
A revenue boom driven by oil and gas income is giving lawmakers much more financial flexibility than usual, making it possible to pay for new investments in crime-fighting strategies.
“Our job is to be gathering information, and then deploying the best solutions and strategies here in New Mexico,” said Rep. Nathan Small, a Las Cruces Democrat and vice chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
More officers? Yes. Longer sentences? No.
There’s strong evidence, Doleac said, that increasing the police presence in a community – hiring more officers – reduces violent crime, especially homicides.
Furthermore, the swiftness and certainty of punishment matter more, she said, than the punishment itself.
“Most would-be offenders simply aren’t thinking that far in the future,” Doleac told lawmakers. “We simply don’t get much deterrent effect from longer sentences.”
But increasing the probability of getting caught, she said, reduces violent crime.
New Mexico has tried both strategies, at least to some extent.
Enhanced criminal sentences have won support from Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham; her Republican predecessor, Susana Martinez; and lawmakers of both parties. A sweeping crime measure passed this year, House Bill 68, stiffens potential penalties for fleeing from an officer or using a gun during a drug transaction or serious violent offense.
But some Democrats – in the state Senate, especially – have pushed back on many other proposals to lengthen criminal sentences and kept them from becoming law. Republican-backed measures to expand New Mexico’s three-strikes law – to impose a life sentence after a third violent offense – have failed repeatedly.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the data on longer sentences demonstrates that it isn’t particularly effective to stiffen penalties, despite its popularity as a political sound bite.
“We ought to talk about what’s real and not real,” he said in a recent legislative hearing.
Lawmakers this year poured extra money into efforts to hire more officers, authorizing 15.9% raises for State Police officers and retention pay for officers throughout the state.
Cities and counties also have pushed for years to expand their law enforcement ranks. But the size of police forces throughout the state hasn’t changed much.
The number of law enforcement officers working for city, county and state governments grew just 1.8% in the 10-year period ending in June 2021, legislative analysts say.
New Mexico had fewer officers per capita last year than the national average and would need to add roughly 400 more officers to reach the national rate, according to analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee.
Hiring more officers, Doleac said, can have social costs. Increasing the police presence can result in unnecessary arrests and use of force.
Better training and accountability for officers are options to address these costs, she said, though the topic is at the center of new research.
Over the past five years, New Mexico has had the second-highest rate of people killed by police in the country, according to LFC research.
“From 2016 to 2020, 108 individuals were killed by police, a rate triple the national average,” legislative analysts wrote in a report to lawmakers.
The U.S. Department of Justice in 2014 investigated Albuquerque police and found a pattern of excessive force that violated people’s constitutional rights. The city of Albuquerque and federal government agreed to a settlement agreement – still in place and overseen by a judge – intended to reform policing in the city.
Adding people to law enforcement DNA databases can help solve and deter crimes, Doleac said, citing data from the United States and Denmark.
People may “clean up their act,” she said, if they know their DNA is on file.
Putting cameras in public places, even if they’re not monitored in real time, also increases the likelihood that an offender will be identified and caught, Doleac said.
Start with leniency
For first-time nonviolent offenders, Doleac said, giving them a second chance can actually reduce crime, compared with pulling them into the criminal justice system immediately.
Dropping charges at arraignment for first-time defendants accused of nonviolent misdemeanors reduced the likelihood of future charges compared with those whose cases were prosecuted, she said.
For nonviolent felonies, deferred adjudications – dropping charges after a probationary period – for first-time defendants reduced their future crimes, and increased employment and earnings, compared to those who were convicted and punished as usual.
“Giving people a second chance to avoid a first conviction has big public safety benefits,” Doleac said. It also “allows the court system to focus on more serious offenders.”
Health care, drug treatment
Expanding Medicaid to low-income adults without children reduces violent crime, according to Doleac, who cited studies in several states. New Mexico opted into the Medicaid expansion offered under the Affordable Care Act about 10 years ago and about half of New Mexico’s population is already enrolled in Medicaid.
Each additional substance-use treatment center that opens in a county, she said, reduces homicide.
In Missouri, connecting people with mental health needs to local health care services reduced their likelihood of future arrests.
Legislators this year authorized $72.3 million in one-time spending and $2.4 million in ongoing spending aimed at boosting the state’s behavioral health workforce, expanding resources and establishing the new 988 Crisis Now response system, according to LFC analysts.
But it remains to be seen, the analysts said, whether the increased spending will result in the desired outcome.
“Even as the state tripled its spending on core substance use services between 2014 and 2020,” legislative analysts noted, “its violent crime rate rose 30%.”
Finding summer jobs for teens helps reduce violent crime, Doleac said. Minimum-wage, part-time jobs have been shown to reduce violent crime arrests substantially in Chicago and Boston for teens who received a job compared with those who didn’t, according to her presentation.
She described the findings on summer jobs as particularly powerful because of the random lotteries used to allocate slots in the programs, allowing for a control group.
It’s “one of the places we have the most evidence,” Doleac said.
The jobs seem to work, she said, by giving teens access to informal mentors – their supervisors – and experience handling workplace arguments.
The effect might also be driven, Doleac said, by “giving teens a glimpse of a different path and something to aspire to.”
Public assistance, infrastructure
Food stamps and housing, Doleac said, also have an impact on crime.
Access to food stamps reduces recidivism; housing reduces future criminal charges, especially among those with prior involvement in the criminal justice system; and Supplemental Security Income for young adults reduces future charges. The effect is typically larger for such income-generating crimes as robbery, according to Doleac’s presentation.
In some cases, she said, public assistance has particularly long-lasting or generational effects. Access to food stamps early in life, for example, reduces criminal justice involvement later in life.
Streetlights, turning vacant lots into parks and reducing air-pollution exposure have all been shown to help reduce certain kinds of crime, Doleac said.
Better lighting can make it easier for people to avoid danger, and increase the probability that an offender will be identified and caught.
Greening vacant lots is connected with reduced street crime, perhaps because of increased foot traffic, lower temperatures and improved air quality, according to Doleac’s presentation.