Fed up with tough talk, civic groups to grade crime bills

SANTA FE, N.M. — A coalition of civil liberties, human rights and faith-based groups in New Mexico has created a new litmus test for criminal justice legislation designed to encourage proposals based on evidence and question highly politicized calls for harsh penalties.

Members of the coalition, called New Mexico Safe, plan to assign letter grades to major criminal justice bills before the proposals reach initial committee hearings when the Legislature convenes in January.

The initiative responds to a sense of frustration over hard-line crime legislation, New Mexico ACLU Public Policy Director Steven Robert Allen said.

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“We’ve experienced some horrible crimes in New Mexico in recent years, and I get the sort of reactive approach from an emotion standpoint,” said Allen, describing recent efforts to increase minimum sentences and reinstate the death penalty. “They don’t seem to be grounded in any targeted way in actually increasing public safety.”

Participants in the effort include the League of Women Voters, the Albuquerque NAACP, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Social Workers and many others. The coalition’s four-point evaluation system was designed to focus legislative conversations on crime-reducing strategies that have a proven track record for improving public safety and conserving public funds amid a state budget crisis.

To illustrate the approach, New Mexico Safe rated several recent criminal justice bills and resolutions, giving a “B” grade to a Republican-sponsored 2015 initiative that created a task force to study new housing options for mentally ill inmates who might otherwise linger in jail at the public’s expense. The coalition gave a “D” to a failed 2016 proposal that would have classified as a hate crime the targeted killing of a police officer or emergency first responder.

The co-sponsor of that legislation, Republican House floor leader Rep. Nate Gentry, defended the bill as an appropriate response to recent killings of police officers in New Mexico, while welcoming the new effort to provide broader research and information. He noted his own support for alternative sentencing that incorporates mental health and substance abuse treatment.

“If you talk to district attorneys and police and the people who are responsible for getting those violent , repeat offenders off the street, there is a need for increased penalties” to protect law enforcement officers, he said.

Gentry used a special legislative session in October to usher a trio of tougher sentencing laws for violent crimes through the House. The measures were never considered by the Democrat-led Senate, but they became fodder for political attack ads painting several lawmakers as soft on crime or dismissive of victims of violence.

In November elections, Democrats took back majority control of the House of Representatives and increased their majority advantage in the Senate. Incoming Democratic legislative leaders have openly criticized as electioneering recent efforts to reinstate the death penalty and expand mandatory three-strikes sentencing.

Come January, the Legislature also will be under pressure to shore up funding to the judiciary, where payments to juries and interpreters is expected to run out March 1, and to the Office of the Public Defender, where overwhelmed attorneys have turned down hundreds of cases for indigent defendants this year in response to budget constraints.

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said Tuesday that the Legislature is likely to hear proposals next year to reduce penalties for traffic penalties and low-level misdemeanors, freeing up resources to address more severe crimes.

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