January 8, 2015

Crossing the aisle in the name of reform


Outside of the New Mexico State Capitol Building Photo: Andy Lyman

Wrapping up its first full year, the Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee has approved legislation to be introduced for the 2015 session.

The legislative subcommittee made up of state senators and representatives was put together with the intention of exploring changes to New Mexico’s criminal codes. This year, there are eight proposed bills that are listed as endorsed by the committee.

The group is co-chaired by Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, and Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque. Torraco said the committee only endorsed legislation that every member agreed with.

“There are representatives, senators, Democrats and Republicans. If anything had even one person objecting to it, then we didn’t put it forth,” she said.

Maestas told NMPR the Legislature can expect bills aimed at reducing criminal recidivism through rehabilitation. According to Maestas, allowing parolees the opportunity to vote and find housing are two ways to help stop them from re-offending.

“The number one indicator for recidivism is stable housing, yet our policies restrict felons from obtaining state subsidized housing,” Maestas said. “Our policies are all backward.”

One issue Torraco said she particularly cares about is allowing inmates to spend the last year of their sentence in state approved housing. Under the proposed act, halfway houses would be partially run by the Corrections Department. Non-violent offenders could then obtain a job and help pay for the cost of housing, according to Torraco.

“That way they would actually have a job when they get released from prison,” she said. “We want these people to get jobs, pay taxes and contribute.”

Both Maestas and Torraco said they would also like to see Evidence-Based Programming legislation passed. According to a proposed bill, New Mexico’s Corrections Department would assess the needs and risks of each inmate. The inmate would then be assigned to a specific program based on the assessment.

“That would be programs that have been proven to be successful in drug and alcohol treatment and anger management treatment,” Torraco said.

Neither Torraco nor Maestas have prefiled legislation that the group endorsed, but another member has.

Prison cell at Alcatraz IslandSen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, filed SB 16 last month.  The bill would reform how law enforcement agencies use eye witnesses to identify suspects. A duplicate version of his SB 16 is listed as endorsed by the Criminal Justice Reform Committee.

Two other senators from the subcommittee filed legislation related to reform, but not listed as endorsed by the subcommittee.

Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, introduced a joint memorial that asks the New Mexico Association of Counties to look into suitable housing for individuals awaiting trial who also have a mental illness. Under HJM 4, the NMAC would meet with court officials, law enforcement and mental health experts from around the state to determine the availability and feasibility of appropriate housing.

Another bill aims to update the Criminal Employment Act which currently only applies to public employment.

Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, on Wednesday, filed SB 120. His legislation would extend employment protections for individuals with a criminal record to include private and public employees. It would also allow private sector employers to deny employment or revoke a work related license because of a felony or violent crime convictions.

Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, also a member of the subcommittee, introduced legislation in 2012 and 2013 aimed at exempting certain crimes from meritorious deductions, or possible early-release for good behavior. Last year a similar bill was filed by Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque. So far, no similar legislation has been prefiled for the 2015 session.