November 30, 2018

Criminal justice reform expected to be a ‘premier topic’ for lawmakers

If an interim legislative committee meeting on Thursday is any indication, 2019 could be a year when New Mexico lawmakers pass a slate of criminal justice reform efforts that were previously blocked by Gov. Susana Martinez.

The Courts, Corrections and Justice interim committee met to hear recommendations from a subcommittee tasked with reviewing and crafting possible legislation, some of which addresses probation and parole standards and changing punishments for non-violent crimes.

Most of the bills the interim committee discussed previously passed the Legislature with bipartisan support before they were vetoed by Martinez.

A bill to “ban the box,” or prohibit private employers from asking about criminal convictions on employment applications, for example, was cosponsored by a Republican and Democrat in 2017 and made it to Martinez’s desk with significant Republican support. Still, Martinez vetoed it, saying it limited employers’ ability to properly vet potential employees.

During Thursday’s meeting, Republican state Sen. Sander Rue, who co-chairs the subcommittee, said employers would still be able to ask about criminal convictions during employment interviews. It would, the Albuquerque senator said, help convicted felons get past the application stage.

“Too often that’s as far as that goes,” Rue said.

Martinez, a former prosecutor, made increasing criminal penalties one of her priorities.

Even though the interim committee discussed legislation this week, it is still hard to say which bills will gain traction during the legislative session next year. The pre-filing period for bills doesn’t start until next month and an endorsement by the interim committee doesn’t guarantee general support. But interim committee member and resident criminal justice reform supporter Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, told NM Political Report he thinks besides bolstering the state’s education system, criminal justice reform will be a “premier topic” next year and that many of the proposals will become law by next July.

“Both the House and the Senate have educated themselves tremendously the past two or three years learning about criminal justice reform measures throughout the nation that are working to reduce recidivism and reduce crime rates,” Maestas said.

As with most legislative meetings, committee members asked questions and raised concerns.

State Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, questioned endorsing potential bills he had not read yet.

“You’re going to ask me now to say ‘yes’ to something I don’t know anything about,” Alcon said.

Maestas told NM Political Report that regardless of whether Alcon or other members knew exactly what was in each proposal, the general issues have been discussed in the Legislature numerous times.

“He may not have read the bill for a couple of years,” Maestas said of Alcon. “But all of us on that committee are familiar with these bills. The question is, how do we educate the new House members so that they’re comfortable voting on it?”