“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.”
— Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham
The governor made that promise last week after joining legislators of both parties to announce a package of anti-crime bills. N.M. victims of the ubiquitous property and violent crime wave plaguing our metro areas, state and nation had to be saying: “It’s about time.”
When you get a Democratic governor, Republican and Democratic lawmakers (many are lawyers), the Albuquerque police chief, the district attorney for the busiest judicial district and the attorney general speaking with one voice in support of anti-crime measures, it is clear those measures are needed. Property and violent crime are out of control in too many of our communities.
These measures are not new; all have been debated in some form. All will directly address a serious shortcoming in our state’s legal system. And all deserve to be crafted carefully, discussed thoroughly and passed ultimately to the governor for her signature into law.
As we have stated before, the goal of rebuttable presumption is not to lock more people up; it’s to lock up those defendants who pose an unacceptable risk to the community. Senate Bill 123, sponsored by Sen. Linda M. Lopez and Rep. Meredith A. Dixon, both Albuquerque Democrats, would create a presumption of dangerousness for defendants charged with certain violent crimes — a presumption defense attorneys could rebut with evidence and mitigating circumstances.
For context, University of New Mexico researchers looked at the more than 10,000 cases of pretrial releases in Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court and Second Judicial District Court from July 2017 through March 2020. They found that, while 95% of felony defendants were not arrested for a violent crime while on pretrial release, more than 450 cases involved arrests for new violent criminal activity ranging from domestic violence to stalking to involuntary manslaughter.
And supporters of rebuttable presumption are right to say it is about targeting that small group of core criminals who wreak violent havoc on the community. The crimes included in the current version of the bill range from first-degree murder to brandishing/discharging a firearm during a felony.
Last October, a Journal poll found 77% of likely city voters support making it easier to keep violent criminals behind bars pending trial. It is past time for lawmakers to judiciously target violent and gun crimes.
Aggregated retail theft
Last session, Reps. Bill Rehm and Stefani Lord, Albuquerque and Sandia Park Republicans, sponsored legislation that would have created the crime of organized retail crime and established thresholds for felony charges. The impetus was the rash of organized shoplifting rings behind major losses at retail stores. In 2021, then-N.M. Attorney General Hector Balderas created a statewide Organized Retail Crime Task Force, saying “… The most violent criminals in the country now understand this can be a very profitable business to invest in other criminal activity in New Mexico.”
Criminal rings send folks out to steal up to $499.99 over and over and over again, avoiding felony charges. In this session, there’s no excuse not to get aggregated retail theft on the books.
‘Straw’ firearms buyers
Albuquerque Police Department Lt. Ryan Nelson estimates a “straw purchase” of firearms — someone buying a gun for someone prohibited by law from purchasing one, say a felon or a minor — occurs “every single day in the city of Albuquerque.” Many such guns have been recovered in crimes. There’s no valid reason for New Mexico to protect someone who knowingly buys a gun(s) for those who can’t buy them legally. Lawmakers need to crack down on these lawbreakers who are fueling our gun-crime problem.
Safe gun storage
How many sad stories do we have to read before we require gun owners to be responsible adults and secure their firearms? From Benny Hargrove, shot by another student who brought his father’s gun to their Albuquerque middle school, to Lincoln Harmon, 2, shot by his four-year-old brother with a gun stored in a kitchen cabinet in their Rio Rancho home, it just has to stop.
House Bill 9 is sponsored by Albuquerque Democrats Rep. Pamelya Herndon, Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart, Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Las Cruces Democrat Joanne J. Ferrary. To really work, it should include strong educational outreach, the carrot of free/reduced/tax breaks for trigger locks, safes and such, and real penalties for stealing a gun in the first place.
More law enforcement officers
The proposal for an additional $100 million to support recruiting and hiring law enforcement agencies statewide raises the concern of creating recurring costs with one-time revenue, but none of the aforementioned laws work without officers and deputies to enforce them. We need more individuals who put themselves on the line to keep our communities safe. Transparency on how the money is spent and how many officers are hired will be essential to public confidence in this proposal.
Here’s to these bills being dissected thoroughly, any unintended consequences identified and eliminated, and passage into laws that will indeed make New Mexico safer. The time is now.
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.