SANTA FE, N.M. — Criminal justice reform has become a hot topic around the nation amid a conversation about easing three-strikes sentencing laws, scaling back mandatory sentencing laws and focusing on rehabilitation.
That’s not the case in New Mexico, where lawmakers assembled last week for a new legislative session.
Lawmakers and the governor are pushing a tough-on-crime agenda in response to the killings of two police officers and a 4-year-old girl who was shot during a road-rage dispute. The agenda is reminiscent of a wave of 1990s anti-crime laws that are being reversed in some states just as New Mexico takes them up.
“What we’re trying to do is provide legislative solutions to keep this handful of violent offenders off the street,” said Rep. Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican and the House Majority leader. “Our No. 1 job as legislators is to make sure people are safe in their homes.”
Nearly 20 pieces of proposed legislation aim to crack down on criminals and extend prison terms for violent career felons, repeat DWI offenders, parole jumpers and others. The proposals include a mandatory-minimum sentencing measure, expansion of the state’s three-strikes law, making the targeted killing of a police officer a hate crime and a constitutional amendment to overhaul bail rules in New Mexico.
Gentry and other Republicans say the sentencing measures are needed to confront violent crime, while some Democrats argue the proposals are outdated and lack specifics on how the state should pay for putting prisoners behind bars for longer stretches.
“It’s a 1990s tough-on-crime approach, highlighted by I think these three-strike proposals,” said Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat. “It’s an outdated model that I’m not going to support.”
Lawmakers regard the hard-line crime legislation as a prelude to the fall election season, when the entire New Mexico Legislature is up for re-election, and possible political attack ads painting some lawmakers as soft on crime.
Albuquerque-based pollster Brian Sanderoff said multiple polls show crime has overtaken economic concerns as the top preoccupation among New Mexico residents for the first time since the financial crisis.
“The economy ruled the day for all those years, and crime is starting to take over,” he said. “Politicians sense that.”
On Tuesday in Santa Fe, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez opened the legislative session with an impassioned call for tougher sentencing provisions for repeat felons, drunken drivers and crimes related to child pornography.
“We have vicious, heinous criminals among us,” said the governor, invoking her background as a former district attorney and upbringing as the daughter, and later wife, of police officers. “We see teens terrorizing neighborhoods late at night. … It’s our job to fix it, and there’s a lot we can do.”