Can the state afford to increase incarceration rates at a time of budgetary teeth-gnashing, an overburdened court system and full prisons?
And on the other hand, can a state with one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates afford not to?
On Tuesday at the Roundhouse, a House panel signed off on a bill to expand the state’s “three-strikes” law for repeat violent criminals, while the full House approved three proposals to ratchet up penalties against convicted child abusers and those who possess child pornography.
Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, the sponsor of the three-strikes legislation, said the bill is intended to be narrowly tailored.
“My intent has always been that we are targeting violent repeat offenders,” Pacheco said in a Tuesday interview. “I don’t want this to be creating another set of problems.”
However, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said new state revenue estimates set to be released by as soon as today will show little or no “new” money available for lawmakers to spend next year.
He also said the worsening revenue situation – estimates released last month had pegged projected new money at $232 million – could make it difficult to enact new crime measures.
“The public all wants them, but we’ve got to pay for it,” Smith said.
New Mexico had the nation’s second-highest violent crime rate in 2013, according to FBI crime data, and a recent string of brazen crimes in the Albuquerque area has prompted the calls for tougher laws and sentencing requirements for repeat offenders.
Gov. Susana Martinez has led the call for tougher sentencing laws on offenses ranging from skipping out on parole to child abuse to repeated DWI convictions.
In her State of the State address last week, the two-term Republican governor, a former prosecutor, cited the killing of two police officers in the past year – both in the Albuquerque area – and called state criminal justice laws too lax and the court system too weak.
“We have vicious, heinous criminals among us who are willing to take the lives of our greatest heroes, and who have no business being out on our streets,” Martinez said.
Victims of family members have also shown up at the state Capitol during the ongoing 30-day legislative session to testify in support of the bills.
“I am sick of this judicial system,” Julie Benner, the widow of fallen Rio Rancho police officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner said earlier this week in a House committee hearing on a proposal to allow judges to deny bail to dangerous defendants.
Critics of some of the tough-on-crime bills say there needs to be more of a focus on improving New Mexico’s economy and public school system. Those changes would reduce violent crime rates, they say.
House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Tuesday he agrees that violent criminals who re-offend should be kept locked up, but said he’s concerned about unintended consequences.
“Narrowing judicial discretion and tying the hands of a prosecutor doesn’t make our communities any safer,” Egolf also told the Journal.
Meanwhile, during Tuesday’s hearing on the three-strikes legislation in the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Eliseo Alcon said courts are already overburdened.
“We have a court system right now that cannot handle the current case load that’s in front of them,” said Alcon,D-Milan.
Top New Mexico judges have asked for a budget increase of nearly $15 million – or 8.9 percent – for the coming fiscal year, but the worsening state budget picture could make it unlikely that lawmakers include the requested funding in their annual spending bill.
An even larger funding request, percentage-wise, from the Law Offices of the Public Defender also appears to be doomed.
It costs the state an average of $123 per day – or about $45,250 annually – to house an inmate in a state prison, according to a legislative analysis of House Bill 56, the proposed expansion of the three-strikes law for violent offenders.
Increasing the length of sentences would cause that cost to rise, the analysis found.
Already, the Corrections Department’s core budget has grown by roughly $5 million since the 2011 budget year, due primarily to a growing prison population.
But Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said enacting laws focusing on “predators” and following up with new models of incarceration for “those who aren’t predators” could actually bring down the prison population.
He said he is reluctant to rely on financial impact forecasting because so many variables are at play in the justice system, including criminal behavior influenced by tougher laws.
Currently, about 65 percent of the state’s prison population is incarcerated for violent crimes, he said.
However, Marcantel also cautioned about overburdening the police, court and incarceration system with new laws without following up with additional changes and funding for rehabilitation, transitional programs for people coming out of prison, mental health treatment and drug addiction treatment.
If communities come to feel their government is focusing on apprehending and imprisoning the violent, repeat offenders, he said, then they could be willing to change how the state incarcerates less violent people.
“We’ve got to start somewhere,” Marcantel said.