The rift over how to stem New Mexico’s rising crime rates burst into the open Thursday, with Democrats blocking a proposal to expand the state’s three-strikes law.
The bill would have allowed prosecutors to seek life sentences for criminals convicted of three violent felonies. Republicans argue this would keep repeat offenders off the streets.
Democrats and advocates for criminal justice reform contend the policy would do little to prevent crime but would raise the cost of the state prison system.
New Mexico already has a three-strikes law that covers a short list of violent crimes, such as first- and second-degree murder, kidnapping resulting in great bodily harm and armed robbery resulting in great bodily harm.
Still, the New Mexico Sentencing Commission says it has no record of anyone having been sentenced under the policy.
Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, proposed to include various other crimes as “strikes,” including voluntary manslaughter, aggravated arson and aggravated assault on a peace officer.
Gentry conceded that the measure might not prevent crime in the sense of offenders stopping to consider the consequences of a felony. But, he said, it would still keep criminals off the streets.
“The deterrence here is that they’re in jail and they’re not able to go out and hold up that liquor store or commit battery on a peace officer,” he told the committee. “That’s the deterrence. Incarceration.”
A coalition of groups that includes the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops has graded a slew of crime bills proposed by lawmakers this year. It gave Gentry’s proposal an F.
There is no evidence that three-strikes laws deter violent crime, according to the group, New Mexico SAFE. Instead, it says such bills are “the embodiment of a politically driven response to crime because they sound ‘tough on crime’ and repeat offenders but in fact do nothing to reduce crime.”
An analysis by legislative aides described the law’s costs as “large,” with the price of incarcerating convicted felons growing $23.5 million during the next 15 years.
Meanwhile, the Law Offices of the Public Defender raised concerns that the wording of the law could sweep up some offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes.
And the chairman of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said expanding the law is not necessary because prosecutors are not using the existing three-strikes law.
“We wouldn’t need this if we had prosecutors that would use what is in the books today,” said Alcon, a former magistrate judge.
“What it’s been used for is a bargaining tool,” he added, arguing that prosecutors are more inclined to use the threat of a life sentence as a means of getting a plea deal.
The committee voted 3-2 along party lines to table the bill and shot down another three-strikes sentencing law proposed by Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque.
But, in an unusual show of unity, the committee voted unanimously to approve a bill that would slap tougher sentences on felons caught in possession of a firearm.
House Bill 19, also sponsored by Gentry, would make it a third-degree felony for a felon convicted of a violent crime to be in possession of a firearm, potentially increasing the sentence from 18 months to three years.
Some Democrats have touted the measure as a type of gun control. This led Democrats on the committee to join with GOP lawmakers in supporting the bill.
The measure still faces two more committees before it can get a vote from the full 70-member House of Representatives.
But Alcon cautioned that the bill would not do much address a bigger issue. It is already illegal for a felon to buy a gun. The challenge, Alcon said, is keeping guns off the black market.
“We’re gonna pass 25 million bills like this,” he said. “And those guns will still be out there.”
Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.