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Editorial: Some ‘minor’ crimes need more than a slap on wrist

When your court system is on budget life support, relying on an almost $700,000 emergency appropriation to pay jurors and avoid employee furloughs through mid-April, and your police force is too many officers short, it makes perfect sense to ask if maybe that court system and police force are trying to do too much.

And House Bill 428 correctly answers “yes.”

Unfortunately, the 86 pages of legislation proposed by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, go too far in taking offenses off the criminal books that endanger public safety and classifying them as penalty assessments that carry no potential jail time.

Considering governments’ ongoing budget woes, it is hard to argue that serving warrants and tying up court time for many of the listed infractions gives the public the most bang for its legal system buck. For those who would falsify documents to get special recognition license plates for being a prisoner of war, a disabled veteran or a silver star recipient, as well as those who would illegally park in a space reserved for the handicapped, litter in the Land of Enchantment or jaywalk – well, a simple fine and a special place in the afterlife should suffice. As Chief Public Defender Ben Baur says, “There are a lot of offenses that don’t really hurt anyone.”

However, in a state like New Mexico that has horrific uninsured driver (around one out of five) and drunken driving rates (166 deaths attributed to DWI last year), it makes absolutely no sense to have driving without insurance or driving on a suspended license carry a simple fine.

Because why would you ever get insurance or hand over your keys if you could instead play the odds, bet on not getting pulled over, and face nothing more than a $100 fine if you did? Over, and over, and over again? And the worst thing that could happen is an additional $50 fine for not showing up in court after you checked that box on your ticket rather than forking over 100 bucks?

Maestas says Montana has proposed similar changes to its criminal justice system and is estimating that could save it $70 million by 2023. Saving that kind of cash would be great for New Mexico, too – as far as not hunting down fake military veterans, jaywalkers and litter bugs. It makes sense to impose fines on such offenders, removing their trips to the courthouse and potential jail time.

But for those who drive on a suspended license or without insurance? Just ask anyone who has ever been hit by someone who thinks insurance and license laws don’t apply to them. Removing these offenders’ trips to the courthouse and potential jail time when their actions directly affect public safety is pennywise and pound foolish. It encourages drivers to ignore, rather than comply with, the laws enacted to keep everyone on our roads safe.

HB 428 has a lot of good proposals, but lawmakers need to read them carefully and ensure they do not minimize crimes that affect everyone’s public safety.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.