Attempts at criminal justice reform are not new for the New Mexico Legislature, but success in lessening criminal penalties and revamping processes has seen mixed results. But reform advocates and some lawmakers said they are confident this is the year criminal justice reform proposals will gain more traction and possibly be signed into law.
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, who has been a long-time advocate for criminal justice reform said a politically progessive shift of the Legislature could help move those types of bills forward.
“I think a lot of champions have emerged,” Maestas said. “So I anticipate a whole slew of criminal justice type bills to increase public safety and make the system more accountable”
One issue Maestas said he plans to address is language in state law that gives law enforcement officers who are under investigation arguably more rights than other citizens under investigation have been afforded in practice.
The law Maestas plans to address details rights of officers subjected to internal investigations and includes things like limiting interrogations to two in a 24 hour period, limiting interrogation time limits and requiring no more than two interrogators at a time. Maestas said the language in the law is unusually similar to language in most police union contracts.
“It’s like an HR protection in state statute,” he said.
Maestas said the law itself is antithetical to basic freedoms afforded by the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s even referred to in popular culture as the peace officer bill of rights,” Maestas said. “Which totally contradicts the premise of the U.S. Bill of Rights, which is protections against the government not protections for government.”
Maestas said he also wants the regulation of law enforcement licensure moved from the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy to the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department and plans to sponsor a bill to do so.
Maestas said law enforcement is one of the few professions, including teachers and lawyers, in the state that is self-regulated.
“The Law Enforcement Academy has to be re-reworked,” he said. “I think everyone has unity on that, it’s just a question of how do we create this new system of accountability.”
During the 2019 Legislative session, Maestas was a cosponsor of a bill that would have overhauled the process of determining whether a probation or parole violation constitutes more jail time. Part of the issue, Maestas and other advocates argued, is that too many probationers or parolees were reincarcerated for technical violations like missing an appointment or testing positive for drugs or alcohol.
Maestas said he will not be sponsoring the bill this year, but that he expects to see a more narrowly focused version that deals primarily with technical violations.
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, another sponsor of the technical violation bill in 2019, said she will not be sponsoring it and was not sure who would be, but that she plans on offering up her support.
“I kind of think it might be good to have a fresh face and somebody who’s maybe got a little bit more authority on it,” Chasey said.
The 2019 version of the technical violation bill made it to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk, but she ultimately vetoed it, citing concerns she heard from the state Attorney General’s Office and district attorneys from around the state.
“Although I do not agree with many of their characterizations of [the 2019 bill] or when they chose to express their concerns, I have vetoed [the 2019 bill] to provide another opportunity for these stakeholders to weigh in on the important issues addressed by the bill,” Lujan Grisham wrote in her veto message.
Chasey, who is the chair of the House Judiciary committee and co-chair of the interim Courts, Corrections & Justice Committee, prefiled a bill aimed at more efficiently restoring voting rights to convicted felons.
New Mexico state law already allows convicted felons the right to vote, but only after they have completed their post incarceration parole or probation. Chasey told NM Political Report that the current process creates confusion as to when exactly an individual can register to vote.
Chasey said the current law and process “creates a considerable bureaucratic mess.”
Her bill aims to first tie the cancelation of a person convicted of a felon to their change of address when they are incarcerated. Then, the former inmate would automatically be eligible to register to vote when they are released.
Fewer cases and better funding
While the COVID-19 pandemic has and continues to impact the entire state, jail and prison inmates were faced with trying to socially distance while also living in close quarters. The New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender has continued to push for the governor’s office and the New Mexico Corrections Department to do everything in their power to lower inmate populations. Lujan Grisham issued an executive order last spring allowing certain classes of inmates a chance at release, 30 days prior to their original release date. Across the state, many counties and municipalities were more selective when detaining people for minor, non-violent offenses or technical probation and parole violations.
Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur said that while domestic violence numbers may have increased during the pandemic, he doesn’t think overall public safety suffered because of fewer arrests and detentions.
Baur said his office will be asking the Legislature for more money, as they have in previous years, but that ultimately he thinks a more nuanced approach to criminal justice will save his office money.
“The system contracted a little bit, but we have these backlogs of cases in the courts,” Baur said. “If we go back to policing and prosecuting in the same way we did, we will have missed the opportunity that comes out of crisis.”
Historically, members of the state’s judicial branch as a whole have said courts, defenders and prosecutors are all underfunded. But while courts and prosecutors are divided up by districts, which receive individual funding, the public defender’s office is statewide and receives funding as such. A previous report by NM Political Report found the public defender’s office historically received about 26 percent less state money than state prosecutors combined. But prosecutors are tasked with the burden of proof in criminal cases and often employ extra employees for investigations and other tasks involved in proving a case.
Baur said he hopes to see more legislation that rethinks how the criminal justice system works, for both moral and financial reasons.
“Beyond more money, we can do our job more effectively if we have fewer cases,” Baur said.
The Law Offices of the Public Defender will advocate for lowering penalties in some cases, but also push back on bills that aim to increase penalties, Baur said.
“What’s important about this legislative session and looking at these reform issues is we are still in a budget crisis for the state, and we can handle this in a smarter way by looking at what works and what doesn’t work,” Baur said. “We know that over policing and over incarceration has not worked, and this is really the opportunity to put smart policy and being smart about the budget and efficiency together.”