SANTA FE — In the early stages of this year’s 60-day legislative session, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and top Democratic and Republican legislators are calling for a political truce of sorts to pursue a range of solutions to New Mexico’s violent crime problem.
But finding common ground on hot-button proposals dealing with guns, criminal penalties and keeping certain defendants behind bars until trial could prove tricky as lawmakers wade deeper into the session — and deeper into the bills themselves.
During a Wednesday news conference that featured Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina and Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman, Lujan Grisham said she would push for legislation enacting stiffer criminal penalties for organized retail crime, for instance, while also backing a measure to ban the purchase and delivery of different types of semi-automatic firearms.
The Democratic governor said she was profoundly affected by recent mass shootings in California, adding that thoughts and prayers are “not an action plan.”
“Our first responders and police officers are not safe in this climate, straight up,” Lujan Grisham said.
New Mexico’s violent crime rate has tracked above both the national average and the rates of neighboring states for at least the last decade, with Albuquerque setting a record-high for homicides in each of the last two years — including 121 homicides last year.
But a legislative report released last year found low arrest, prosecution and conviction rates may have contributed more to Bernalillo County’s crime problem than releasing defendants awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, bills seeking to lower the crime rate have generated heated partisan debate in recent years, with majority Democrats blocking many Republican-backed proposals dealing with tougher criminal penalties and GOP lawmakers staunchly opposing bills to expand background check requirements for firearm sales and allow guns to be seized from individuals deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others.
House Minority Leader Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, was one of three House Republicans who attended Wednesday’s news conference at the Governor’s Office, and said many New Mexicans are tired of political posturing.
He expressed a willingness to work with the governor on bills dealing with retail crime, pretrial detention and keeping guns out of felons’ hands, but said Republicans would likely oppose other gun-related legislation.
“We believe strongly in the Second Amendment, so some of those are going to be challenging for us,” Lane said in an interview after Wednesday’s news conference.
The governor last year signed a bill increasing various criminal penalties, but her push to change New Mexico’s pretrial detention rules to make it easier to hold defendants accused of certain violent crimes until trial encountered opposition at the Roundhouse — including among members of her own party — and ultimately stalled.
Several bills dealing with pretrial detention have already been filed during this year’s session.
Bregman threw his support behind a bill proposed by Sen. Linda Lopez and Rep. Meredith Dixon, both Albuquerque Democrats, that would shift the burden in pretrial detention hearings from prosecutors to defense attorneys in certain types of cases, including murder and sexual abuse of children.
He also cited internal data from the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office showing that about 21% of the roughly 2,845 defendants released after pretrial detention motions were denied under the current system since 2017 were charged with new offenses while their original case was still pending.
“What we need to is not point the finger at judges, but fix the process,” Bregman said.
But some legislators remain skeptical.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, the influential chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said during this year’s session he believes the current system is largely working as intended under a 2016 bail reform constitutional amendment, describing a presumption of guilt as a “unconstitutional shortcut.”
Cervantes also attended Wednesday’s news conference and said not all of New Mexico is beset by crime concerns, citing Sunland Park as one of the state’s safest communities.
“We operate under the same laws as the rest of the state, and we have entirely different outcomes,” he said.
In addition, he said some existing state laws should be examined before legislators pass new laws, but said he planned to work on a governor-backed bill allowing victims of gun violence to file civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers.
Albuquerque has often been the face of New Mexico’s high violent crime rate, as the city had about half of the state’s violent crime in 2022 but just a quarter or so of its total population, according to legislative data.
But the city’s police chief said Wednesday other cities in the state are also struggling with the issue, including his hometown of Taos.
Medina also said lawmakers should balance the need for expanded drug abuse and mental health treatment programs with tougher criminal penalties for certain types of offenders.
“This is a matter of getting tough on the right people,” he said.
For her part, the governor said previous communication breakdowns between different law enforcement agencies in Bernalillo County hampered efforts to crack down on crime.
But Lujan Grisham expressed optimism those issues have been resolved with a new leadership team that includes new Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen.
She also vowed to continue focusing on ways to reduce crime as she enters her second term as governor.
“It won’t always be easy and it won’t always be pretty, but we’re going to work together until we solve these issues,” Lujan Grisham said.
At a glance
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public safety agenda for this year’s 60-day legislative session will likely encounter different allies and foes, depending on the proposal. Here are some of the governor’s top priorities:
- Establish “rebuttable presumption” for pretrial detention hearings in cases of defendants accused of certain crimes (Senate Bill 123)
- Funnel additional $100 million to existing fund to support hiring and recruitment efforts for law enforcement agencies statewide (not yet filed)
- Close loophole on “straw” purchases of guns that end up in the hands of convicted felons (not yet filed)
- Make organized retail crime a specific offense punishable by felony charges when value of goods stolen exceeds certain threshold (not yet filed)
- Enact criminal penalties for failing to keep firearms safely out of children’s reach (House Bill 9)