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House approves expansion of ‘three-strikes’ law

SANTA FE – A bill that would expand New Mexico’s never-used “three-strikes” law for repeat violent offenders is headed to the Senate, after being passed in the House late Thursday on a 47-15 vote.

Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, the measure’s sponsor, said the bill, had it been in place, would have applied to just 60 criminals in a recent 15-year span. But he also called it necessary to ensure violent repeat offenders get stiffer sentences.

“They’re creating mayhem on our streets,” Pacheco said during Thursday’s debate.

However, critics of the legislation, House Bill 56, pointed out that other states, including California, have recently relaxed or backed away from their three-strikes laws due to concerns they were unfair.

“When it comes to criminal justice reform, we’re stuck in 1993,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

The proposal was crafted in response to several high-profile crimes last year in the Albuquerque area, including the shooting death of 4-year-old Lilly Garcia in a road-rage incident.

However, it’s unclear whether the change in law would have had an impact if it had been in place before the recent crimes.

Under the measure, offenders would face a sentence of life imprisonment upon conviction of a third violent offense.

Crimes that would be added to the current law include voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, first-degree child abuse and aggravated burglary. Currently, the law is limited to murder, kidnapping and a few other violent offenses – it has never been used.

“Since 1994, not one career criminal has been charged under this,” Pacheco said.

An amendment to the bill was adopted Thursday on the House floor that would require a finding that all three crimes – or strikes – were violent for a defendant to be sentenced under its terms.

That amendment was proposed by House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and was not opposed by Pacheco.

A second proposed change that would have removed involuntary manslaughter as a qualifying offense was opposed and was subsequently voted down.

The bill could face tougher going in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which has not yet acted on a slew of tough-on-crime measures pending at the Capitol.

Earlier this week, Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, accused the GOP-controlled House of “grandstanding” on the crime bills and said legislation dealing with job creation should be lawmakers’ top priority during the session.

But House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said during Thursday’s debate, “I firmly feel our No. 1 job in the New Mexico Legislature is to make sure our people are safe.”

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