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House panel approves ‘three-strikes’ bill

SANTA FE – The first of a group of tough-on-crime bills being fast-tracked by the House GOP majority cleared their initial hearings Thursday, but not without facing strong opposition.

The House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee passed an expansion of the state’s “three-strikes” law on a 4-3 vote, with Republicans voting for it and Democrats opposed.

That bill, HB 56, which would add to the list of crimes that qualify an offender for a mandatory sentence of life, or 30 years, now heads to the House Judiciary Committee.

Meanwhile, judiciary panel members voted 8-2 to approve a bill that would close what some describe as a “loophole” in New Mexico’s child pornography law.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, would allow – but not require – prosecutors to charge defendants for each image or depiction of child pornography they possess.

Currently, because of a 2014 state Supreme Court ruling, criminal charges can’t be tied to the number of images suspects have in their possession. The bill would also mandate enhanced penalties for possessing images of children under age 13.

Both of the bills faced hours of grilling, mostly by Democrats concerned about broad and vague language in the proposals, signaling a potentially challenging road as the measures move forward to the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, and Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, voted against the bill, HB 65, saying it is too hefty – and misdirected – to work through in the current short, 30-day session and concerned it would take away judicial discretion.

Maestas joined House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, in asking for a different approach in cracking down on chid pornography: tougher penalties for one count of possession instead of what they called the complicated option to file multiple counts of possession.

In a somewhat unusual move, the child porn bill will not be heard by any other House panels and will instead go straight to the House floor.

The three-strikes law will have another committee hearing. Opponents to that bill worry it is overly broad and would not be an effective deterrent to crime.

Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, said his legislation wasn’t intended as a deterrent, but rather as a way of “incapacitating a thin slice of criminal offenders to make New Mexico safer.”

The New Mexico Sentencing Commission reported that it applied the parameters of the Pacheco bill and a similar bill to criminal convictions from 2000 through 2014 and concluded that 60 offenders would have qualified for life sentences.

The other bills in the tough-on-crime group include a proposed curfew for children under age 16, allowing judges access to juvenile criminal histories and a proposed constitutional amendment allowing judges to deny bail to certain defendants.

Two other bills that would enhance and expand penalties for child abuse also passed the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Journal Capital Bureau reporter Deborah Baker contributed to this report.