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Bill would change handling of some nonviolent offenses

SANTA FE – With state dollars limited and New Mexico’s judicial system already strained, an Albuquerque lawmaker is proposing to de-emphasize how the state handles certain nonviolent offenses – including jaywalking, littering and driving on a suspended license.

If approved, the bill could reduce the number of court hearings and free up law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes, said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

He said other states are already weighing similar reforms. In Montana, for instance, proposed changes to the criminal justice system could save the state $70 million by 2023, according to a recent report.

“Can you imagine if we saved $70 million in (New Mexico’s) criminal justice system?” Maestas told the Journal. “It would help solve the budget problem.”

The legislation, House Bill 428, would reclassify littering, jaywalking, faulty headlights or taillights, expiration of dealer license plates and other offenses as “penalty assessment misdemeanors,” which means those who do not pay fines would not be subject to bench warrants.

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Under the state’s current system, the offenses are classified as misdemeanors. Since jail sentences and fines can be given for most misdemeanors, those cited for such offenses can also apply for a state-appointed attorney.

Chief Public Defender Ben Baur said in a Tuesday interview that such cases make up a small percentage of his cash-strapped agency’s cases, but he said they still consume valuable time and resources.

“If we move these into another category, that saves resources,” Baur said. “They’re still violations, but you don’t have to have a prosecutor and a state-appointed attorney.”

A number of other traffic citations, including speeding and failure to obey traffic signs, are already classified as penalty assessment misdemeanors.

New Mexico’s judicial system has been struggling with heavy caseloads and working under budget cuts enacted last fall in response to an ongoing state revenue downturn.

As a result, the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts recently warned it would have to halt jury trials next month if emergency funding is not provided, and a Lea County district judge found Baur in contempt for his department’s “failure and refusal to represent” defendants in several criminal cases.

In addition, new Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez recently told members of a House budget-writing panel the homicide rate in Bernalillo County has reached its highest level in 20 years and yet his office cannot afford laptop computers for its prosecutors.

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While a House spending plan for next year would increase funding for prosecutors, public defenders and the judicial branch by 2.5 percent – or roughly $3.9 million – a larger infusion of state dollars appears unlikely given the state’s tepid budget outlook.

That leaves limited choices for lawmakers when it comes to easing the strain on the judicial system, which Maestas cited as a benefit of his proposal.

“The criminal justice system is really the only system we can save money by changing policy,” Maestas said.

He also said reclassifying certain nonviolent offenses would allow law enforcement officers to focus on more serious crimes, instead of arresting those who don’t pay fines.

Baur sounded a similar tone, while describing the proposal as a way to clear “underbrush” from the state’s criminal justice system.

“With all the agencies short on resources, we have to focus on the things that are really important,” he added. “There are a lot of offenses that don’t’ really hurt anyone.”

The legislation is pending in the House Judiciary Committee, its first assigned panel.

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