Push for tougher 'three strikes' law in New Mexico - Albuquerque Journal

Push for tougher ‘three strikes’ law in New Mexico

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Just weeks after a Rio Rancho police officer was killed in the line of duty, some New Mexico lawmakers are calling for stiffer prison sentences for people with a history of multiple violent crimes.

One expected focus of the push is New Mexico’s rarely used “three-strikes” law, which calls for a mandatory sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole for offenders convicted of three violent felonies.

PACHECO: Wants to expand three strike law
PACHECO: Wants to expand three strike law

Rep. Paul Pacheco, an Albuquerque Republican, said last week he plans to propose a bill during the 2016 legislative session that would expand the three-strikes law by adding new felony offenses – possibly aggravated burglary and conspiracy to commit murder – to the current list of qualifying crimes.

“I’m trying not to do this as a knee-jerk reaction,” Pacheco, a former police officer, told the Journal . “I’m trying to be very thoughtful about this.”

However, skeptics of the proposal say three-strikes laws are misguided, arguing New Mexico already sends plenty of people to prison.

“Removing judicial discretion with statutes imposing mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike laws has proved to be a failed experiment in America,” New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association President Matt Coyte said. “The national trend is to back away from such legislation, which has proven to be ineffective and prohibitively costly.”

MAESTAS: Co-chaired criminal justice panel
MAESTAS: Co-chaired criminal justice panel

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, who was co-chairman of a recent subcommittee that considered changes to the state’s criminal code, said there are better ways to improve the state’s criminal justice system.

“I think the judicial system as a whole is clogged up and prosecutors don’t always prioritize cases,” said Maestas, an attorney.

He also said New Mexico’s three-strikes law has rarely, if ever, been used because the state also has a habitual offender law that allows mandatory extensions to be tacked onto the sentences of convicted repeat violent felony offenders.

Meanwhile, Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, said she would consider adding the proposed expansion of the three-strikes law to the agenda for next year’s 30-day legislative session.

“As (the governor) has said before, keeping New Mexicans safe is a relevant and important topic each time the Legislature meets,” Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez said.

Officer’s slaying

Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner, a 49-year old military veteran, was shot and killed during a May 25 traffic stop.

Andrew Romero, who is accused of murdering Benner, has two prior stays in the state prison system and had faced three separate indictments earlier this year under the terms of a plea deal under which he was allowed to walk out of jail on his own recognizance, with no additional prison time and instructions to report to a drug treatment program.

He never did. Instead, he allegedly went on a violent crime spree that included the shooting of Benner.

Romero had already been held for 460 days while awaiting trial.

In a letter to the Journal, Pacheco called the plea deal proof of a “flaw” in the state’s criminal justice system, using the case to argue in favor of both stiffer mandatory criminal penalties and more public scrutiny of judges.

He said he plans to work with the Governor’s Office and other lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – in the coming months to try to build support for the proposal to expand the state’s three-strikes law.

In a subsequent interview, he said his proposed expansion of the state’s three-strikes law would be narrowly crafted – only other types of violent felonies would be added.

“There’s been a lot of apprehension about three strikes because some states have gone to the extreme,” Pacheco said.

Renewed interest

New Mexico’s three-strikes law was enacted in 1994, around the same time that a number of other states implemented similar laws.

Three-strikes laws have been controversial in states including California, where voters approved 2012 changes aimed at ensuring prisoners don’t receive life sentences for nonserious or nonviolent offenses. That came after reports showed the law was disproportionately affecting minorities and costing California billions in incarceration costs.

In its current form, New Mexico’s law calls for a life sentence to be tacked onto any sentence imposed on an individual convicted of three separate violent felonies, with at least the third conviction occurring in New Mexico.

As currently defined, violent felonies are limited to murder, kidnapping, criminal sexual penetration and shooting at or from a motor vehicle resulting in great bodily harm.

Partly because of the lengthy sentences such crimes typically carry, a Corrections Department spokesman confirmed last week there currently are no inmates in the state serving sentences under the law.

House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, sponsored legislation during this year’s 60-day session that would have added voluntary manslaughter, third-degree aggravated battery and felony shooting at a dwelling or occupied building as other qualifying offenses under the three-strikes law.

Although this year’s bill did not advance out of its first assigned House committee, Gentry said Benner’s death is generating renewed interest in the subject.

“Clearly, we need to do something,” he told the Journal. “What’s a person’s life worth? You don’t get to three violent felonies because you’re unlucky.”

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email yourstory@abqjournal.com

Nativo Sponsored Content

taboola desktop


NM can reach higher with free college for all
From the newspaper
Over the past few years, our ... Over the past few years, our state has expanded opportunities for New Mexicans to pursue career trai ...
Lobbyist answers to landowners, not county residents
From the newspaper
Vanessa Alarid's accusations that I am ... Vanessa Alarid's accusations that I am "undemocratic" and unresponsive to my distr ...
San Felipe Pueblo member to lead museum
From the newspaper
San Felipe Pueblo's Cynthia Chavez Lamar ... San Felipe Pueblo's Cynthia Chavez Lamar has been hired to lead the Smithsonian's Nati ...
Tutu teachings offer us moral compass, conscience
From the newspaper
He always believed in a humanizing ... He always believed in a humanizing worldview
School of Public Health can transform NM
From the newspaper
UNM and NMSU can create government ... UNM and NMSU can create government resource center meant to prevent health threats
Editorial: Dow backed ethics commission - until it investigated ...
Shortly after taking office in 2017, ... Shortly after taking office in 2017, state Rep. Rebecca Dow joined other House members in a 66-0 vot ...
HopeWorks rebuts public allegations of fraud by city
From the newspaper
Homeless provider 'committed to resolving this ... Homeless provider 'committed to resolving this misunderstanding'
Shortage of COVID tests posing problems for schools
ABQnews Seeker
Health officials are working on distributing ... Health officials are working on distributing tests and masks over the coming weeks
Environmental bills to watch during this session
ABQnews Seeker
Bills would ensure water, agriculture and ... Bills would ensure water, agriculture and climate initiatives get a slice of the funding pie