February 9, 2020

Bipartisan package of public safety bills advances in House

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New Mexico lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee on Saturday advanced a bipartisan package of public safety measures that proponents said are aimed at reducing violent crime in communities across the state and aiding law enforcement officers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Provisions in the omnibus package that would provide funding to train officers in “community-oriented policing” and ease access to treatment for officers with PTSD received broad support from the law enforcement community, advocacy groups and committee members.

Suicides nationwide among law enforcement officers were higher last year than the deaths of those killed in the line of duty, several proponents noted, referring to studies by national nonprofits showing a surge in officer suicides in 2019.

To address the issue, the omnibus package includes a provision that would make it easier for commissioned officers to get PTSD treatment covered through workers’ compensation.

The package, which combines House Bills 6, 35 and 113, was approved by the committee Saturday on a vote of 13-0 and has the support of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

But two of the bills — which would stiffen penalties for some offenses involving firearms — drew criticism from public defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which argued such measures do not deter criminal behavior.

“Penalty enhancements serve zero effect on deterring crime, and that’s not just me saying that, that’s the United States Department of Justice,” said Paul Haidle, senior policy strategist with the ACLU.

He was referring to Albuquerque Republican Rep. Bill Rehm’s HB 35, which would allow a judge to add three years to the prison sentence of a first-time convicted offender who brandished a gun during the crime and five years for subsequent offenses.

Under current law, the sentencing enhancement is one year for a first offense and three years for later crimes.

Under HB 35, “You can get multiple enhancements in a single case,” argued Kim Chavez Cook, with the state Law Offices of the Public Defender.

Mark Shea, Cabinet secretary of the state Public Safety Department, countered that whether or not the threat of a longer prison sentence affects a person’s decision to commit a crime, the increased penalty keeps criminals off the streets longer.

“We would like to see that they are out of circulation and not within our communities for a longer period of time,” Shea said.

He pointed to FBI data showing New Mexico ranked No. 2 nationally for violent crime in 2019.

J.D. Bullington, a lobbyist for the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, and David Jaramillo, representing the city of Albuquerque, noted high rates of gun deaths in that city, which has ranked among the top 10 in the nation for violence.

Chavez Cook and Haidle also opposed another part of the package sponsored by Rehm, which would increase the crime of being a felon in possession of a firearm from a fourth-degree felony to a third-degree felony for anyone previously convicted of a felony offense, regardless of whether the crime was violent.

Rehm touted the House Judiciary Committee’s unanimous vote in favor of the package of legislation in a statement later Saturday.

“Our goal is to make it tougher to be a criminal in New Mexico,” he said. “This bipartisan omnibus crime package is a step in the right direction to finally address New Mexico’s crime problem.