Robinson: Roundhouse cooperation and compromise

Sherry Robinson
New Mexico News Services
Sherry Robinson

Leading up to the hearing Saturday night of the three-strikes bill, Roundhouse watchers were caught in political crossfire.

In this legislative session, Republicans unfolded a big crime package and hollered that anybody who didn’t support it was soft on crime and didn’t care about the state’s children. The Democrats hollered back that the crime bills were just a distraction from the state’s dismal economy, wouldn’t work, and would bust an already fragile budget.

So with this backdrop, coupled with the tiresome nastiness of national politics, the Senate Public Affairs Committee, with its majority of Democrats, took up HB 56, by a retired policeman, Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque.

An amazing thing happened on Saturday. During a long evening of tears and personal stories, our legislators laid down their rhetoric and spoke from the heart. The Ds and Rs were kind to one another. And they passed the bill.

HB 56 would enlarge the meaning of “violent felony” to include shooting at or from a vehicle, aggravated assault, kidnapping, child abuse, sexual assault of a minor and aggravated burglary. A third conviction for any of these crimes would bring a life sentence.

Just the day before, the Senate heard a letter from former Gov. Gary Johnson, who wrote, “Contrary to their intent, mandatory minimum laws like three strikes do little to reduce crime. They do, however, help drive prison overcrowding and demand substantial increases in corrections spending.”

Pacheco had said he wasn’t trying to put away a lot of people for life; he just wanted to target repeat violent criminals.

Testimony began with Veronica Garcia, mother of the beautiful four-year-old Lilly, who was killed in a road-rage incident. Lilly’s riveting photograph was an arrow to the heart, driving home the point that we can’t protect our children.

Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel spoke with passion, saying the prison system needs work, but it shouldn’t be an excuse to not support this bill. “Ten percent of the people are committing the bulk of the crimes,” he said.

A woman who served time for drug offenses said she had turned her life around and made the case for treatment rather than incarceration. A rape victim wept and struggled to speak against the bill, which she said would not prevent such crimes in the future.

And so it went. Even committee members had experiences as crime victims, as parents, as professionals working with crime victims. Nobody in the room, it seemed, was untouched, and all had profound reasons for their beliefs.

Committee Chairman Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said: “We’re manufacturing criminals. Our prison system doesn’t work. When we send young men to prison for 30 years, they can’t function on the outside.”

However, it was Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, who put his finger on public sentiment: “Society is morally justified in imposing severe punishment on people who commit violent acts and do it repeatedly.”

We feel for Alan and Veronica Garcia and wonder if we too could lose a child or loved one in the same way? Who can blame them for going to Santa Fe and demanding that lawmakers do something? The Garcias are the faces of our great weariness with crime that seems to be out of control and our inability to rein it in.

Even Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, the Senate’s nitpick, was moved. He told the Garcias that in the press of legislative business he had held his little daughter for the first time in a week and, looking at them, felt guilty about it. The Albuquerque Democrat then made the bill palatable by amending the bill to zero in on offenders who had committed three violent crimes resulting in great bodily harm or intended to cause great bodily harm or committed crimes in a violent manner.

With that, “Lilly’s Law” passed on a bipartisan vote.