January 11, 2019

Lawmaker confident about criminal justice reform’s chances of passage

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In the New Mexico Legislature, Democratic Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas’ name could be synonymous with criminal justice reform. Now, in his 12th year as a lawmaker, Maestas wants to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system.

In 2016, when the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives and then-Gov. Susana Martinez championed legislation to increase criminal penalties and reinstate the death penalty, Maestas was the leading voice against those efforts. Now, Maestas, a former prosecutor, is headed into the 2019 legislative session armed with what he calls an omnibus package of bills that have historically seen bipartisan support, but fell victim to Martinez’s veto pen.

Maestas thinks, with a new governor, this is the year for reform.

“I believe a lot of my [fellow legislators] have really grown on these initiatives and we have really strong, bipartisan, bicameral support for criminal justice reform in 2019,” Maestas said.

With Republican Sen. Sander Rue of Albuquerque, Maestas co-chaired an interim subcommittee aimed at fine-tuning criminal justice reform legislation, and he expects the fruit of their labor to be born as legislation on the first day of the session.

NM Political Report spoke with Maestas Thursday just before he was scheduled to meet with Rue and other lawmakers to put the final touches on their package of bills. The conversation was edited for brevity.

What can we expect to see this year regarding criminal justice reform?

New Mexico is prepared to make tremendous strides in advancing our criminal justice system. We have to increase its speed, the speed from arrest to conviction. That’s the number one deterrent to crime. But we also have to lower the recidivism rate. We have to prevent people from going back into prison once they get out. So, we’re going to come up with an omnibus package which is about 10 or 12 proposals in one bill. We’ll be running a series of individual bills and [we’ll] join the other 49 states who have lowered their crime rates while simultaneously lowering prison costs.  

What kind of pushback do you anticipate and from whom?

I don’t anticipate a general pushback, I think there may be disagreements on some of the details. Historically, the Albuquerque Journal [editorial board] and the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce [support penalties as a crime-deterrent], but I think they’re the only ones left. The vast majority of the members as well as those on the campaign trail are aware that what we’re [currently] doing doesn’t work.

I think we all have a general agreement that we get the criminal justice system we pay for. We must fully fund the DA’s offices and the criminal courts, as well as the public defenders. So, I don’t anticipate a pushback in general, but I know some of these concepts have taken some people time to think through. But once the lightbulb goes on, it stays on.

It seems like some of the criminal justice advocates this session are right-leaning politically. Do you anticipate some commonality at the discussion table?

Yes, many of these proposals are consistent with Right on Crime, out of Austin [Texas]. We’re going to have lobbyists from Justice Action Network out of South Carolina come to New Mexico, as well as the Rio Grande Foundation.

Is there any commonality between these reform efforts and previous attempts at increasing penalties?

The data proves that increasing penalties does nothing to deter crime. Nothing to affect the crime rate.

If we put an emphasis on reducing recidivism as opposed to trying to curb behavior with stiffer penalties then we’ll be much more successful in lowering the crime rate and having less crime victims. The number one deterrent for crime is the likelihood of getting caught and the speed of prosecution after arrest.

We want to create a system that folks get indicted within 60 days upon their arrest, and they get convicted within six to nine months of their arrest—as opposed to getting indicted a year later and then getting prosecuted a year after that.

What are some of the most important pieces of legislation in your opinion?

From a governmental standpoint, beefing up our pretrial services apparatus, particularly in Albuquerque at Metro Court. Because Metro Court does the first appearances and the pretrial supervision. There’s a 60-day rule, so Metro has jurisdiction over felons for the first 60 days after arrest.

But, in terms of policy, expungement, the ability to expunge criminal history, decades after the fact, will be tremendous in terms of public safety so that folks can have jobs and live good lives and are not forced back into a life of crime. I would consider that a priority.