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Despite fiscal crisis, several crime bills raised anew in NM legislature

Despite a Democratic-controlled Legislature, which historically in New Mexico hasn’t taken up a tough-on-crime mantle, a handful of bills have been introduced to toughen punishments – including a reintroduction of the death penalty in certain cases.

Many of the bills pre-filed before the start of the session Tuesday are repeats from the last two years, when Republicans had control of the House and were able to give the bills some traction before most died in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Gov. Susana Martinez has expressed support for the death penalty for convicted cop and child killers and “three-strikes” laws, but some lawmakers warn the state’s funding crisis will make it more difficult to pass them.

“Even in affluent years, there is always a discussion about money. Increased penalties cost money to house prisoners, but when you go ahead and talk to the community, the community does not feel safe,” said Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque.

There were numerous high-profile crimes in the last two years, including the killing of four New Mexico law enforcement officers, the shooting death of a young Albuquerque girl caught in a road rage incident, and the shooting death of an innocent bystander, a popular Albuquerque teen, at a party.

Critics of increased penalties say financial concerns are valid and point to studies that say increased penalties don’t show a deterrent effect on crime – especially the death penalty.

One of the largest studies of the deterrent effect of tougher penalties shows that the strength of the penalty has less effect, if any, than the certainty of receiving a punishment, and deterrent effects are greater on minor crimes and much less for serious crimes.

“The tendency is to increase penalties as a form of public policy, and it simply doesn’t deter crime, and it adds stress to an already stressed system,” said Rep. Antonio “Mo” Maestas, D-Albuquerque. “We need evidence-based policies to ultimately lessen the crime.”

He is particularly opposed to the death penalty, which is a very expensive process, but he said even less expensive policies like the three-strikes laws are also expensive – and outdated.

Governor’s agenda

In a speech earlier this month to Albuquerque business leaders, the governor called on lawmakers to pass bills increasing penalties for child abuse and driving while intoxicated and reimpose the death penalty – which the state abolished in 2009 – for individuals convicted of killing children or law enforcement officers.

“We should give prosecutors and juries the option to impose it,” she said.

But Martinez did not mention how the stiffer penalties would be funded, as her proposed $6.1 billion budget plan for the coming year would extend budget cuts for the state’s judicial branch and provide only a small funding increase for the state’s prison system.

Legislators can propose bills until about halfway through the session, Feb. 16 this year.

So far, Rehm, a former sheriff’s deputy, and House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, together have filed half of all crime-related bills.

The two have doubled up on bills that would expand the state’s three-strikes law, adding to the current list of crimes applicable for the enhancement.

The three-strikes law allows prosecutors to seek a mandatory sentence of life in prison, which in New Mexico is 30 years without the chance for parole.

Gentry’s bill, House Bill 54, is the version passed by the House last year. It would remove the requirement that the convictions be for crimes that caused great bodily harm, meaning prosecutors could try to get a habitual offender enhancement for some of the defendant’s previous felonies even if no one was seriously injured.

The bill also would add to the list of qualifying charges, among others, involuntary manslaughter, shooting at a building, homicide by vehicle, aggravated arson or battery on a police officer, and injury to a pregnant woman by vehicle.

Rehm’s bill, House Bill 13, retains the requirement that any qualifying crimes have resulted in someone’s great bodily harm, and it would add some but not as many charges as Gentry’s for consideration.

“Mine is more restrictive. He’s casting a wider net,” Rehm said.

Enhanced penalties

Rehm also introduced two bills to enhance penalties for firearms crimes and bills to broaden the definition of drunken driving to include drugged driving, extend the statute of limitations for various felony crimes, and allow crimes in a 25-year period to count toward habitual offender status.

“Crime bills always have a problem anyway, so there is this ‘let’s not do anything’ attitude,” Rehm said. “I think that what you do is every year you gain a little bit of progress.”

Gentry is making another attempt at a bill that would allow local governments to enact curfews.

“I’m hopeful. A lot of the bills that I’ve reintroduced passed by pretty overwhelming margins in the House last year and the year before that,” Gentry said.

And he is more hopeful this year because of the November general election defeat of Michael Sanchez, the former Democratic Senate powerhouse often blamed or credited with squashing tough-on-crime bills. Republicans ran an election campaign against Sanchez using the families of victims of high-profile crimes and portraying him as the longtime block to holding criminals accountable in the state.

Sanchez has said money would be better spent on drug and alcohol addiction treatment and rehabilitation rather than incarcerating more New Mexicans.

Funding is a crucial element of the session.

Gentry said that more important than penalty increases at this point is full funding for law enforcement, courts and prosecutors.

“It’s just very important we keep that funding intact,” he said.

Maestas agreed funding is key, but pressed those seeking increased penalties to consider the ramifications.

“Folks who are proposing penalty increases should also support paying for those increases,” Maestas said. “Funding the Bernalillo County DA’s Office is crucial. The Bernalillo County DA is arguably one of the most stressed-out institutions in all of state government. If we really want to impact crime in Albuquerque, we really need to fund that office. Increasing penalties does not make crime go away.”

Other bills of note

Among some of the other crime-related bills introduced:

House Bill 49, from Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, would require a sobriety monitoring program for DWI defendants unable to obtain or install an ignition interlock.

House Bill 23, from Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, would increase the penalty for homicide by vehicle while recklessly driving from a third- to a second-degree felony.

Senate Bill 55, from Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, would increase the range of fines to $100 to $1,000 for reckless or careless driving and driving while texting.

House Bill 44, from Reps. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, and Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, would make it a more serious crime to commit assault and battery on a state social worker.

House Bill 43, from the same representatives, would, mostly, broaden some of the definitions of criminal sexual contact of a minor.

House Bill 71, from Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, would make it a crime to send any sexual electronic image to a child, not just limited to a sexual image of the sender.

House Bill 45, from Maestas Barnes, would expand the age range for intentional child abuse resulting in death to include older children as well as younger.