December 2, 2015

Interim committee endorses expansion of three strikes law

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An interim committee endorsed two pieces of legislation that would expand the list of crimes that would qualify for New Mexico’s three strikes law. After three convictions for eligible crimes, the person convicted would face a life sentence in prison.

Jail CellThe more contentious of the two was the one brought forward by Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, perhaps because it was the first time the committee had heard that particular legislation. Pacheco called his legislation “narrowly crafted” a number of times and said it was his intention to only target “super predators.”

The additions would add more than ten felonies on the list of crimes eligible for the three strikes law, including involuntary manslaughter and first degree abuse of a child.

Pacheco said that the fact that no one has been charged under the three-strikes law since it was implemented in 1994 showed that “it’s useless.”

“We are really focusing our energy on just the violent offenders,” Pacheco said.

Some took issue with the scope of Pacheco’s additions and wondered at the cost; the specter of a budget-busting three-strikes expansion in California loomed heavy.

Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, asked about the “fiscal disaster” in California.

“This legislation is fundamentally different in some ways than the California three-strikes law,” Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque said, and Pacheco agreed.

iStock_000002715910_LargePacheco said that the legislation was more narrow than California’s (which has since been narrowed with great success) that filled prisons and had costs that ran into the billions.

He said he used a “scalpel” and not a “sledgehammer” in choosing which crimes should count towards the three strikes.

Pacheco began his presentation by listing several high profile shootings, including two cases of police officers who were killed by repeat offenders. He had harsh words for those he said the legislation targeted.

Still, he bristled when Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said that Pacheco was describing “sociopaths” and made clear that he never used that word in what was a testy exchange.

“I for one ran into the same individuals over and over and over again,” Pacheco, a former police officer, said.

McSorley said that “super predators” was a discredited theory from the 1980s; it was a theory put forward in the 1990s about the next generation of juveniles, who authors of a widely read book said would become “the youngest, biggest and baddest generation any society has ever known.”

One author later said he wished he had never advanced that theory after the predicted rise in crime never happened; crime rates, including violent crimes, have plummeted since the 1990s.

Pacheco used the term “super predators” to describe criminals who “have no feeling for life, they don’t care who they hurt, they don’t care who they kill.”

Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, noted one reason why no one has been charged with the three crimes legislation—those who would qualify haven’t had a chance to commit three such crimes.

“All of the crimes that are included in our current law are 15 or 30 year sentences,” Rehm said.

Rehm had his own three strikes bill go through the interim committee with minimal questions, likely because it was the second time the committee had heard the legislation.

‘The question was that I tried to answer is how many times will we let you injure someone or kill them and then we say that’s enough?” Rehm said when presenting his bill.

Rehm’s bill would also say if someone has served for at least ten years for their third eligible offense and is 60 years old or older that they would be eligible for supervised probation.

Life sentences in New Mexico are for 30 years.

Others looked at other issues tangentially related but that were related to the goal of reducing crime in the state.

Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, wondered at the role of plea deals in putting those who committed violent crimes back on the street as well as a lack of resources for District Attorneys.

McSorley laid the blame at the feet of Gov. Susana Martinez and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.

“This is about a failed governor and a failed mayor,” McSorley said, saying that Berry broke a campaign promise to increase the amount of police officers in the city.

Ultimately, the biggest question was over the cost.

Tony Ortiz, the director of the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, presented alongside Rehm and said that the cost was not simple to evaluate and analysts will need to closely look at the assumptions.

“This is one of those place where you have to put resources into public safety,” Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said. He noted that this might mean raising revenue.

Wirth said if there are increased costs and no revenue is raised, “We’re taking money out of all the things that government pays for now—our education, our kids—and we’re putting it into prisons.”

In both cases, the interim committee voted to endorse the legislation. Endorsements have no real effect in the legislative process during the session, but can signal approval of work done on the legislation during the interim.