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Senate OKs Tougher Sex-Crime Penalties

By Loie Fecteau
Journal Politics Writer
    SANTA FE— Sex offenders would face tougher penalties and increased supervision under a bill sought by Gov. Bill Richardson and approved by the Senate on Thursday with no opposition.
    The House is expected to concur with Senate amendments today, sending the bill on to Richardson, said House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe. The House approved an earlier version without a dissenting vote.
    Richardson said he would sign the Senate-passed measure and that it would mean New Mexico "will never again be called a haven for sexual predators."
    Richardson has pushed for a crackdown on sex offenders since 16-year-old Marissa Mathy-Zvaifler of Santa Fe was killed in July at the Sunshine Theater in Albuquerque. A janitor who had been convicted of raping a 4-year-old and had been given probation rather than being sent to prison has been charged in the case.
    Richardson said the tougher sex offender law would be known as "Marissa's Law." The measure passed the Senate on a 38-0 vote.
    The bill, as amended by the Senate Judiciary Committee, sets a five-year minimum for probation and parole periods for sex offenders. Sex offenders would face maximum probation and parole times of up to 20 years.
    The bill also creates:
   
  • A Sex Offender Management Board to identify and track sex offenders. Members of the board would include the state attorney general and the secretaries of the Corrections, Health, and Children, Youth and Families departments. The board would consider creating an indeterminate sentencing system, which could result in lifetime sentences for sex offenders, and civil commitment of sex offenders.
       
  • A minimum mandatory jail sentence of three years for criminal sexual penetration in the second degree when a minor victim is between 13 and 18 and makes committing a sex crime during a kidnapping a first-degree felony.
        Sen. Ramsay Gorham, R-Albuquerque, and other Republicans complained Thursday that they have sought tougher sex crimes measures for years, only to be thwarted by Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
        "These bill have been voted against for years and years and years," said Gorham, who chairs the state Republican Party.
        Gorham said the focus on sex-offender legislation by Richardson and Democratic legislators was designed to shift attention away from a lack of agreement on tax issues during the special session.
        "This is a cover-up for a failed tax agreement between the governor and his own party," Gorham said during the Senate debate. "This could have been done years ago."
        Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said Richardson had worked hard to get a consensus bill.
        "I don't think this is the greatest bill in the world," said Sanchez, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and carried the bill on the Senate floor. "But this is the first step to build consensus to make sure that we protect our children."
        Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, estimated that the sex offender law would cost the state $350,000 to $5 million a year.
        The Senate rejected a substitute bill by Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Albuquerque, that, among other things, would have toughened New Mexico's Megan's Law, which requires convicted sex offenders to register with law enforcement authorities.
        Carraro said convicted sex offenders should have to register within 24 hours of coming to New Mexico instead of within 10 days as required by present law.
        "New Mexico is the sex offender vacation state," Carraro said. "A violent sex offender can come to New Mexico and spend 10 days here without registering."
        Democrats said the sex offender management board would make recommendations about how to best improve New Mexico's Megan's Law.
        During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, expressed concern about the minimum mandatory jail sentences called for in the sex offender legislation, which he said would "take the discretion away from a judge."
        However, Martinez voted to support the bill, which was approved by the Senate committee on an 8-0 vote.
        Representatives of New Mexico Council on Crime and Delinquency, New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Catholic Conference, and the American Civil Liberties Union argued against the mandatory minimum provisions during the Senate committee hearing.
        "We've always believed judges should have discretion in sentencing," said Joan Gauche of New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers.
        Richardson had told reporters he would not sign a sex-offender bill that did not contain the mandatory minimum provisions.
        The bill was supported by the New Mexico District Attorneys Association, Attorney General Patricia Madrid, and the state Department of Public Safety, among others.