'Three strikes bill' heads for House floor vote

Milan Simonich
The Santa Fe New Mexican
State Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuqurque presents his three strikes  bill to the House Judicary  Commitee at the state Capitol on Tuesday.
State representatives Zachahary J. Cook, R-Ruidoso, left and Antonio Maestas D-Albuquerque, listen to public comment about House Bill 56 known as the 'three strikes' bill, to the House Judicary Commitee at the state Capitol on Tuesday.

SANTA FE – A bill to expand New Mexico's "three strikes" law to send more repeat criminals to prison for life terms cleared the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday in a 7-4 party-line vote.

Democrats opposed the bill by Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco, a retired Albuquerque police officer. Their main criticisms were that the measure would further clog an underfunded court system as more defendants seek trials, and that it could inadvertently ensnare some nonviolent criminals who need not occupy a prison cell for decades.

Pacheco, though, said his bill would target only a small number of predators who commit a disproportionate number of violent crimes.

The New Mexico Sentencing Commission, a public policy agency that assists state government, says Pacheco's analysis is correct based on its statistical review of cases. Of the more than 11,300 people convicted of violent felonies in the last 15 years, only 60 would have received life sentences if Pacheco's version of the three strikes law had been on the books, the commission staff said.

Imprisoning those 60 criminals for an average of 30 years each would cost the state about $56 million, said Tony Ortiz, executive director of the sentencing commission.

Chambers of commerce and other business organizations have endorsed Pacheco's bill as the way to get the worst criminals off the streets. Carla Sonntag, president of the New Mexico Business Coalition, told the Judiciary Committee that Pacheco's bill would make life better for law-abiding people. "We spend too much time talking about criminals' rights," she said.

Gov. Susana Martinez's administration also is backing the bill. Greg Fouratt, Cabinet secretary of the Department of Public Safety, said Pacheco's bill should not be thought of as a deterrence measure but as one that would incapacitate deadly criminals. And Gregg Marcantel, who heads the state Corrections Department, said he likes the bill because "we need to be laser-focused on the predators."

House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he has supported almost every bill to enhance criminal penalties, but he voted against Pacheco's measure. Egolf said parts of the bill have the potential to backfire. Someone convicted of aggravated burglary may not have committed a violent crime but could end up sentenced to life in prison because that is one of the crimes on Pacheco's expanded list of what constitutes a "strike."

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said his concern is that the overburdened court system would see many more people going to trial to try to avoid having a strike on their record. In turn, this would create failings in other prosecutions, he said.

Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said three strikes laws are structured badly. The gunman who fired at a car and killed a 4-year-old girl in Albuquerque needs to go to prison for a significant term for that first strike, and so do other violent criminals, said Maestas, a former prosecutor.

Pacheco said the existing three strikes law in New Mexico is worthless, never having been used, so a change is in order. He also said his wife has been treated for alcoholism, so he understands the difference between those who should be in prison and those who need help.

His bill goes next to the full 70-member House of Representatives.