February 15, 2022

Joint Senate committee advances broad crime reform bill to floor

With just a few days to go before the end of this year’s legislative session, members of both the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to approve a broad crime reform bill — though it isn’t keeping critics from lambasting Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

But rather than focus on imposing stricter laws and penalties, Senate Bill 231 targets providing stipends to recruit and retain police officers; adding more officer training programs; creating a statewide database through which state and federal law enforcement agencies can share information; and generating three additional judgeships to increase trial capacity.

The bill now goes to the Senate floor for a vote. 

The vote came in the same week police arrested two people, including a man with a lengthy criminal record, in the nonfatal shooting of a state police officer near Edgewood, and the random stabbings of 11 people in Albuquerque Sunday.

Some lawmakers alluded to those events as they discussed the merits of SB 231 during a Monday morning joint committee hearing held on the floor of the Senate. 

Initiatives included in the legislation, its supporters said, will do more to prevent crime than locking criminals up for longer periods of time.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said longer incarcerations are an “overly simple” approach to fighting crime, and did not deter Caleb Dustin Elledge, the suspect in the shooting of the state police officer, from committing more crimes. 

“He wasn’t too concerned about serving the original sentence or an enhanced sentence,” Cervantes said of Elledge, who is from Los Lunas. “Evidently these were not things that crossed his mind … as he was shooting at a state police officer.”

Cervantes and other senators said the state needs to do more to invest in alternative sentencing initiatives and programs that fight substance abuse and help people suffering from mental health issues. 

As of Monday, House Bill 2, the state budget bill, includes $50 million to support those initiatives, Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, told the assembly. 

SB 231 includes $1.7 million in recurring and $9 million in nonrecurring grant funds to create a violence intervention program in the state. The initiative, a Legislative Finance Committee staffer told lawmakers, are still being fleshed out and allows local municipalities to decide how to use those resources. 

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, expressed concern that the expanded training program looked like an effort to create bureaucracy. He said the state’s crime problems are rooted in drug use and fueled by illegal trafficking from across  the Mexican border. 

“There’s a root cause we can get to,” Sharer said, adding, “I’m just not sure how much New Mexico can get to that root cause.”

Analysis from that Legislative Finance Committee presented a recent report about rising crime rates in the state, noting arrests, charges and convictions have been dropping — in part because of a shortage of judges and police officers. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said at the outside of this year’s 30-day legislative session that passing crime reform bills would be a priority this year. 

On Monday, State Solutions, a nonprofit formed by the Republican Governors’ Association, announced it is launching a six-figure advertising campaign targeting Lujan Grisham. It claims the governor is soft on crime. 

“At every point in Lujan Grisham’s career she’s failed to provide police with proper support to fight back against rises in crime,” said Will Reinert, a spokesman for the GOP’s governors association.

Some of the governor’s crime reform initiatives have died on the vine, including a proposal to impose tighter regulations for releasing defendants in violent crime cases before they go to trial. 

But over the weekend lawmakers in the House of Representatives did pass two other bills favored by the governor: doing away with the six-year statute of limitations on second-degree murder charges and creating a crime and penalties for making a threat of violence against a public place, such as a school.

The Senate Judiciary Committee moved swiftly to approve the statute-of-limitations bill Monday afternoon, though that action came with an amendment that keeps the penalty for committing second-degree murder at 15 years. The original House version would have made that term 18 years. 

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said told his fellow lawmakers they might not like the idea of returning for a special session on crime, but “we may have to come back to see how we’re doing” with the crime reform initiatives.