Politics of public safety take center stage
A 4-year-old girl shot to death in a road-rage incident. A Rio Rancho officer killed by a convicted felon during a routine traffic stop. An Albuquerque officer killed in eerily similar circumstances just months later.
The high-profile killings, all in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, cast a stark light on violence in New Mexico in 2015 that is spilling over into the Roundhouse going into this year's legislative session.
Lawmakers, mostly in the House of Representatives and mostly Republican, have pre-filed dozens of bills aimed at increasing penalties for drunken drivers and child abusers and making it easier to sentence repeat violent offenders to life in prison. Crime and harsher punishment will be one of the themes of the session that starts Tuesday.
"I can see why they're doing this," Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, said of the abundance of crime bills. "Crime in Albuquerque is out of control."
Even so, some Democrats in the Legislature say the proliferation of crime bills this year is nothing but raw politics in an election year when all 112 legislative seats will be up for grabs. Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, accused Republicans of planning to "use whatever type of votes they can get for political ads in November. If these (bills) are so important, why didn't they do them before?"
House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque — who has pre-filed three crimes bills -- responded, "I really think our number one job as legislators is making sure citizens are safe." The homicide rate in Albuquerque rose 35 percent last year, Gentry said, citing preliminary statistics for 2015 released by the Albuquerque Police Department earlier this month.
Torraco and other lawmakers interviewed said most of the bills were sparked by the road-rage shooting of 4-year-old Lilly Garcia in Albuquerque, the killings of Albuquerque police Officer Daniel Webster and Rio Rancho police Officer Gregg Benner, and drive-by shootings by Albuquerque teens.
Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff said concerns about crime are showing up in his polls. He said that in recent statewide polls he's conducted, crime has been getting a higher percentage of responses from people asked what the state's biggest problem is.
"In the past few years, it's been jobs, jobs, jobs," Sanderoff said. "Now it's crime, crime, crime." In some statewide polls he's taken, crime is now the No. 1 issue, Sanderoff said. "Especially in cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe."
Sanderoff agreed with Sanchez that votes against some of the crime bills will be fodder for Republican attack ads in legislative races. "Any wedge issue will be used for or against candidates up for election," he said.
The abundance of bills to increase penalties seems to be going against the grain of a legislative subcommittee that was co-chaired by Torraco and Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque. During the last two years, that panel explored criminal justice reforms with the hopes of making criminal penalties more consistent and putting less emphasis on prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.
"What a shame in the midst of a recession," said Maestas, a former prosecutor, referring to the crime bills. "There is no empirical evidence that longer sentences help reduce crime. ... Unfortunately, this is an election year. Some of this is for short-term political gain. It does an injustice to the victims."
He said the onslaught of crime bills could "reverse the momentum" the subcommittee had.
Torraco wasn't as critical of the new crop of bills. She said most are for "crime fighting," while she's more of a proponent of "crime solutions, rehabilitation and treatment."
But Torraco said she could support some of the bills. One is House Bill 56, a "three-strikes" measure sponsored by Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque. It would impose a life sentence on any offender who commits three violent felonies. Torraco said it is better than many such laws. "His bill, at least in its current form, is very narrowly tailored," she said.
Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque — who like Pacheco is a retired law enforcement officer — has introduced his own three-strikes law. His HB 37 would would expand the types of crime that trigger mandatory life sentences. Rehm said that, under the state's existing law, only "heinous" crimes such as murder and kidnapping count as a "strike" against defendants. His bill would include crimes such as aggravated battery involving a knife or gun, as well as vehicular homicide and great bodily harm by vehicle.
Rehm said critics of this bill might argue that three-strikes laws in other states — such as California — have overwhelmed the prison systems. But, he said, California's law included all felonies, not just violent felonies. He also said that in New Mexico, a life sentence is defined as 30 years in prison, not life in prison without possibility of parole.
Maestas said some crimes should carry longer sentences. But, he said, the Legislature needs to take a comprehensive approach, not piecemeal bills aimed at random statutes. He added that he thinks it would be impossible to do a comprehensive job in a 30-day session.
Gentry said he accepts that, but he feels there is an immediate need to keep repeat violent offenders behind bars. In the long run, he wants a comprehensive look at the penalty statutes. Gentry also said there needs to be more resources for treatment and rehabilitation for drug addicts and access to care for people with mental illness.
But Sanchez said he hasn't heard anyone advocating for more money for treatment or mental health facilities.
One piece of legislation related to crime that has bipartisan support is a constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. It would allow judges to determine that a defendant can be held without bail if "no release conditions will reasonably protect the safety of any other person or the community."
If the proposed amendment passes the Senate, Maestas said, he and Gentry will carry it in the House. Voters would make the final decision if it clears both houses of the Legislature.
The only visible opposition to the resolution so far is from by the bail bonds industry. It also would prohibit keeping poor people in jail simply because they can't afford bond. But that aspect of the proposal has not been highlighted during presentations.
Among the other crime bills already filed is HB 95, sponsored by Gentry and Pacheco, which would add "status as law enforcement officer" to the Hate Crimes Act. Those guilty of crimes against cops could have their sentences enhanced. The American Civil Liberties Union has pointed out that many crimes against police -- such as battery of an officer -- already carry higher sentences.
Other crime bills are aimed at increasing drunken-driving penalties. They include bills sponsored by Pacheco and Torraco, and Reps. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos,
There also are bills calling for harsher punishment for sexual predators. These include HB 121, sponsored Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland. This is aimed at those who use positions of authority to commit sex crimes against children.
Freshman Reps. Maestas Barnes and Randal Crowder, R-Clovis, are co-sponsoring HB 65, which calls for people accused of possessing or distributing child pornography to be charged with a crime for each separate depiction of a child. The bill also would enhance by 18 months sentences associated with such crimes if the child depicted is less than 13 years old.
Several other bills deal with criminal behavior by minors. Gentry and Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, are co-sponsoring HB 29 to allow local governments to adopt curfew ordinances. Rehm has introduced HB 42, which would allow children's court attorneys to petition that a warrant be issued for a child who has "willfully absconded" from a supervised release program, such as drug treatment, and that the child's commitment be extended by as much as a year.
In a lean budget year, one big question for lawmakers will be how to pay for the added incarceration costs that come with tougher penalties. Gentry said the budget bill will include an increase for the Corrections Department.
Even so, Majority Leader Sanchez said, Democrats will be keeping close watch. "We are going to be asking for cost analysis of every criminal justice bill," he said.