January 11, 2016

While other states eye reform, NM readies for ‘tough on crime’ session

In a crowded conference room in the mayor’s office last November, reporters and police officers gathered to see Republican lawmakers and Mayor Richard Berry discuss their plans for combating repeat criminal behavior.DSC_0216A visibly emotional Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, told the room of his intention to toughen New Mexico’s three strikes law.

“This piece of legislation is very personal to me,” Pacheco said.

Pacheco, a former law enforcement officer, told reporters that he was personally affected by a number of violent, high profile crimes committed earlier in the year. In May 2015, Rio Rancho Police officer Gregg Benner was shot and killed while on duty. In October, Albuquerque Police Officer Daniel Webster was shot and later died from his injuries. Both officers died at the hands of men who already had a history of violent offenses.

“Dan’s death is still very raw to me,” Pacheco said holding back tears, a week after Webster died while on life support. “I worked with Dan he was great guy, he was good man.”

In a matter of days, the sentiment around the state seemed to move from holding officers accountable for their actions to pointing fingers and placing blame, trying to understand why these two men were not in jail.

But Republican leaders like Pacheco are offering solutions to the problem that dominated legislative halls in the 1980s and ‘90s and are today being increasingly rejected by both parties in other parts of the country.

While much of the rest of the United States appears to be collectively moving towards criminal justice reform and rehabilitation efforts, some stakeholders in New Mexico say the state is moving backwards in fighting crime.

Increased penalties could be a focus

Pacheco and Berry are not alone in their effort to get tough on crime. During the same press conference, House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, announced his intention to include law enforcement officers in the state’s hate crime statute.

While the upcoming legislative session is designated for budgetary issues, Gov. Susana Martinez can decide whether other issues can be considered. If her public appearances give any indication, this year’s short session will include a number of bills aimed at combating crime by increasing criminal penalties. In December, Martinez held six press conferences announcing tougher penalties for DWI and one regarding an effort to combat road rage. A former prosecutor, Martinez has made it well known that she is tough on crime.

Some state lawmakers are are also taking a tough on crime approach and are readily introducing their own efforts to lower crime rates. Pacheco filed a bill that would toughen the state’s three strikes law and expressed interest mandatory minimum sentences. When Pacheco presented his legislation to an interim committee, he assured the panel that he fine tuned it in order to avoid problems that other states have experienced.

Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, seems to be going against the tough on crime narrative that many of her fellow Republicans in the House are pushing. A former prosecutor and a current criminal defense attorney, Torraco has worked both sides of the issue. She told NM Political Report that three strikes laws are good for fighting crime, but do little to lower the crime rates.

“I think a three strikes law is a step backwards and it’s draconian,” Torraco said. “If you want to be a crime solver, three strikes is not the right tool.”

Torraco has worked with both parties on criminal justice bills in the past. She previously co-chaired an interim committee aimed at criminal justice reform and sponsored legislation aimed at releasing some convicted criminals into the workforce. If crime bills are approved for the upcoming short session, Torraco said she plans to introduce at least two efforts at changing penalties for certain crimes.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, who worked closely with Torraco on criminal justice bills, called the House Republicans push for tougher crime laws as a “knee jerk reaction to high profile crimes.”

“Three strikes laws are actually being taken off the books in many states,” Maestas told NM Political Report.

He criticizes three strikes laws for taking power away from judges.

“It further bureaucratizes the criminal justice system,” Maestas said.

Gentry criticized the idea that the slew of bills addressing crime is a knee jerk reaction.

“I certainly wouldn’t categorize it as that,” Gentry said.

He said that some of the legislation is indeed in reaction to a handful of violent crimes in 2015.

“If you look at the whole series of very violent crimes this summer, there is a need, in my mind, to toughen these penalties,” Gentry said.

Other states moving away from three strikes

Indeed, other states are doing away with three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences.

In 1994, California lawmakers passed the state’s  “Three Strikes and You’re Out” in reaction to the murder of two women, according to Stanford Law’s Justice Advocacy Project. The law was initially intended to lock up violent offenders, but the project’s website cites that more than half of those sentenced under the law committed nonviolent crimes

In 2012, California voters passed Proposition 36, or the Three Strikes Reform Act, to eliminate certain life sentences and allow those incarcerated under the previous law a way to appeal their sentence.

Texas, a state known for its use of capital punishment, is also a part of the reform trend.

The state recently cut spending by dedicating more money on reforms instead of a new correctional facility, according to a Texas reform advocacy group. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s cites that Texas spent about $240 million on new treatment beds, probation and parole service instead of a planned near $3 billion on a new prison.

Crime in the state is also dropping. The Texas Department of Public Safety reported a 1.2 percent decrease in overall crime in 2008. From 2013 to 2014, overall crime dropped almost six percent. It isn’t clear what effect Texas’ reforms have on this change.

New Mexico didn’t fare as well. The state’s violent crime rate rose 6.6 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to financial news website 24/7 Wall St., which looked at FBI data from across the country

Matt Simpson, a senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said conservatives and liberals in his state worked  together to change common misconceptions of criminal justice reform.

“Reform does not simply mean letting hordes of people out of prison,” Simpson said.

Simpson said reform includes making sure violent criminals stay behind bars.

“Maybe you don’t want to put someone out on parole who has disciplinary problems in prison.”

Simpson said giving the judges parole officers autonomy on who can be released, or what he calls the “inverse of a three strikes law,” allows for a more comprehensive approach after incarceration rehabilitation. Like Maestas, Simpson said legislating change based on some high profile cases can prove to be tricky.

“It can be a mistake to make policy by anecdote,” Simpson said.

Whether or not this year is a tough on crime year in Santa Fe, the conversation won’t likely end after the legislative session. Election season begins starts the 30-day session.

Raul Torrez, a Democratic candidate for Second Judicial District Attorney said he intends to make prosecutions more comprehensive.

“As we have seen from recent experience, one of the most difficult aspects of law enforcement derives from the lack of timely information about defendants being shared between community members, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors,” Torrez recently wrote in an opinion piece for NM Political Report. “As a consequence, violent offenders – or those with a high likelihood to engage in violence – get lost in the crushing caseload that is the hallmark of virtually every criminal justice system in America.”

Torrez wrote that jurisdictions across the country are “leading a quiet revolution in law enforcement” by using analytics and databases to target trouble areas that may prove to have a higher rate of crime than others. Torrez pointed to other cities using a similar method, deemed a “Moneyball” approach to crime, referring to a book about the Oakland A’s baseball team that sought low cost data-driven methods to compete in Major League Baseball.

Another alternative may be to focus on rehabilitation instead of and incarceration, as Torraco and Maestas have done in the past.

Both said that adding penalties doesn’t address the full problem.

“It is a mistake to piecemeal our criminal statute,” Torraco said.