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State needs rational approach to crime

I have been an attorney in New Mexico for almost four decades, and have spent countless years in courtrooms and prisons representing individuals and organizations accused of crimes, including those involving national security issues. I served as president for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in the early ’90s and have sat on several other international criminal defense associations. For these reasons, I have seen the criminal justice system at a deeper level than most, especially in New Mexico.

Despite good people in our courts and tireless advocates around the state, our criminal justice system is largely broken. My legal colleagues spend too much of their time addressing nonviolent crimes rooted in drug and alcohol abuse. Without effective treatment and prevention programs, we will keep seeing these same cases over and over again, spinning our wheels without fixing the root cause.

How did we get here? Part of the problem is our politics in New Mexico.

For years, politicians have run on “tough-on-crime” platforms. It’s easy to say that killers deserve the death penalty and that if you have three strikes, you should never see the light of day again. But the reality – from one who knows the criminal justice system inside and out – is that these political promises actually make the problem they seek to solve even worse.

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That is why New Mexico lawmakers abolished the death penalty seven years ago and shouldn’t resurrect it.

The fact is, tough penalties do not deter criminals. Criminals are not wired to think about possible penalties before committing a violent act. It is simply untrue to pretend that tough penalties will reduce crime and anyone who says so has a motive other than protecting New Mexico residents.

These “tough-on-crime” penalties are also extraordinarily expensive. Death penalty cases and lifetime prison sentences cost New Mexico taxpayers tens of millions of dollars – that is money that could be more effectively spent on treatment and prevention programs that we know work to reduce crime and protect New Mexicans from being victims in the first place.

That is why, after decades in this system, I am excited about the recent launch of New Mexico SAFE. NM SAFE, backed by leading criminal justice experts and community advocates, has created a litmus test for legislation that can break through the political gridlock, move New Mexico into the 21st century, and protect future victims from violent crime.

New Mexico SAFE sets the standard for serious legislation to fix our broken system. We should ask whether any proposed criminal justice legislation meets four simple standards:

• Does it make New Mexico safer for children and families? Tougher penalties do not correlate with a decrease in crime. Serious legislation must prevent tragedies before they happen to make New Mexico safer for children and families.

• Is it apolitical? Too many politicians in New Mexico use tough-on-crime proposals to prop up their political campaigns. Serious legislation must address the problem of crime and public safety, not advance a political agenda.

• Is it fiscally responsible? New Mexico has one of the nation’s most devastating budget crises. Any serious legislation must be fiscally responsible. If it doesn’t actually make communities safer, it’s not worth the money.

• Is it evidence-based? Finally, serious legislation must be supported by evidence that it actually works. We cannot afford to waste time on bills that have no proven track record of reducing crime or increasing public safety, nor bills whose implementation has shown bias or inequitable treatment.

Our current system is upside down and doesn’t work to protect New Mexicans from future violent crime. NM SAFE provides us with an objective, clear path forward. I look forward to the application of these standards during the 2017 legislative session so we can have a serious conversation about making New Mexico safer.

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