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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”