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More prisons and longer sentences are not the answer

Who profits from longer prison sentences?

A recent op-ed piece, by the victim of a terrible and violent crime, accused New Mexico criminal defense attorneys of acting in the Legislature to gain financially.

All New Mexicans are horrified by violence. Violence that takes the life of a child shakes our community to its foundation and damages families in irreparable and unimaginable ways.

All victims and families have the right to grieve and advocate in their own way, including lobbying lawmakers for longer sentences.

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However, lawmakers have to work for the good of the whole state and look at the whole budget.

Right now New Mexicans are paying millions of taxpayer dollars each year on the criminal justice system that we can all agree is not working. Making tougher and tougher laws, as we have done for decades now, has proven not to prevent violence, not to prevent criminal activity and not get to the root causes of crime.

These laws do not protect us or our loved ones.

What these laws do is result in mass incarceration rates. Our country has higher incarceration rates than Iran, Cuba and Kazakhstan.

New Mexico has more people in jail than most states, and that comes with an enormous price tag.

Mass incarceration costs New Mexico big. Much of that money is spent incarcerating people in jails and prisons that are run by corporations for profit.

As this presidential election cycle demonstrates, the for-profit prison industry spends generously on lobbying efforts to keep up tough-on-crime laws for which taxpayers inevitably end up footing the bills.

The corporations that make money from our system depend on our lawmakers increasing the amount spent on prisons at the expense of things like education and treatment programs. A senior executive of a large for-profit prison recently assured its bankers not to worry about criminal justice reform movements because our poor educational system would keep incarceration rates high and the money rolling in.

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It is also worth bearing in mind who in this debate lacks a financial interest in their position: criminal defense attorneys. If anything, expanded criminal bills would result in the defense bar having more clients. To suggest criminal defense lawyers profit from their efforts to stop bad legislation is misguided.

Thankfully there are some lawmakers at the Legislature this session who are not beholden to the private prison or bonding industries and work instead for smart on crime measures. Some are also criminal defense lawyers, like Sen. Michael Sanchez, who work against their own financial interest to advance a better justice system in our state.

These lawmakers are watching trends in other states where mandatory high sentencing laws have crippled state finances and resulted in taxpayers funding ever bigger geriatric wards (needed for people serving decades in prison).

New Mexico is not so wealthy it can afford to continue to follow an expensive, failed model, nor should the decline in the price of oil encourage the Legislature to think imposing enormous future costs on the state is provident.

Other states are backing away from the model of “lock people up and throw away the key” for systems that reduce crime where it starts. They save money in the process. Criminal defense attorneys lose money in the process.

When a criminal defense attorney tries to put the brakes on reactionary criminal legislation, or wants criminal bills to undergo careful analysis before a vote, they are putting New Mexico before themselves.

Margaret Strickland is president-elect and Rikki-Lee Chavez is legislative coordinator for the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

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