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Editorial: Crime law overhaul a must in NM to combat violence

The numbers don’t create confidence in New Mexico’s justice system. A Sunday Journal report by investigative reporter Mike Gallagher laid out some startling facts:

  • New Mexico has the second-highest violent crime rate per 100,000 population in the country.
  • The state sends fewer people to prison per capita than Texas, Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma.
  • New Mexico’s inmates return to prison after they are released at a higher rate than in those states.
  • The Albuquerque Police Department is understaffed. It has 865 sworn officers. It’s budgeted for 1,000.
  • Career criminals enjoy what amounts to a revolving door that spins defendants out of jail in some cases nearly as fast as they are brought in.

In part the staggering crime problem is attributable to a system laboring under several handicaps. State judges must follow a state Constitution that says defendants are entitled to a reasonable bail in most cases – even if they present a danger to the community or to victims.

A state Supreme Court decision last year restricts judges’ use of bail to keep defendants in jail. And a speedy trial rule in Bernalillo County makes it difficult to keep even career criminals locked up. While justice in a timely fashion is important, some provisions of this rule are an unreasonable overreach that is forcing prosecutors to drop charges. While they can be refiled, dangerous defendants in some cases are released in the interim with no restrictions.

As lawmakers prepare for the 30-day budget session that begins in January, a bipartisan effort is coming together to address the handicaps. But various proposals need to be considered as a comprehensive criminal justice package.

Some important components include fixing the bail bond system; centralizing criminal records so everyone in the justice system is on the same page; allowing communities to set youth curfews; widening the three-strikes strike zone; and allowing retired police officers to return to work without adversely affecting their pensions.

Most of these have been discussed in previous sessions, recent violent crimes by repeat offenders mean it’s time not just for discussion but action to keep bad guys off the street.

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.