February 17, 2022

Senate considers crime package

The state Senate late Wednesday debated a sweeping crime bill that includes stiffer penalties for violent offenders and recruitment and retention stipends for police officers — all part of a larger effort to combat a wave of lawlessness that has been plaguing New Mexico.

The push to aggressively fight a rising crime problem that has emerged primarily in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, comes as the unrest has become a major political talking point leading up to the November general election.

“What’s important about this bill is it recognizes that attacking the crime problem requires a multifaceted approach,” said Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who has been one of the lead architects of the crime package.

“It requires us looking at law enforcement on the streets, law enforcement officers’ needs, and it requires us looking at prosecutors and public defenders. It requires us looking at the court system. It requires us to look at the corrections system and our efforts at rehabilitation, as well as the underlying and root causes of our crime problem,” from behavioral health issues to drugs, he said.

Early in the debate, lawmakers approved an amendment to remove a provision to create a law enforcement database to track instances of excessive use of force and other misconduct to ensure agencies aren’t hiring bad apples.

The crime package, folded into one piece of legislation, House Bill 68, required the database to be up and running by June 2023.

“There’s been some thinking that that’s overly ambitious to compile and have that database up by that date,” Cervantes said.

Among other provisions of the crime package, it would do the follow:

• Remove a statute of limitations on second-degree murder charges.

• Create the crime of operating a chop shop and makes it a third-degree felony.

• Make it a fourth-degree felony to threaten a judge or one of their immediate family members.

• Create felony offenses for causing bodily injury as a result of fleeing or evading police.

• Add funding for around-the-clock GPS monitoring of defendants.

• Enhance death benefits for the families of officers killed in the line of duty to $1 million from $250,000.

• Add three new judges to handle a backlog of cases, including in the 2nd Judicial District in Bernalillo County.

Before the floor session, the Senate Judiciary Committee added another provision to the bill: ending the use of the “gay panic” defense in criminal cases. The legal defense is a strategy that asks a jury to find a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression is to blame for a defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat seeking a second four-year term in November, has made fighting crime a priority in this year’s 30-day legislative session.

On the governor’s agenda was a push to change to the state’s pretrial detention process for defendants suspected of certain violent crimes, which failed to gain traction among lawmakers. The 24/7 GPS monitoring was considered an alternative to addressing calls for reform to the pretrial detention system.  

During a late-night committee hearing Tuesday, Cervantes said the crime package was largely a response to Albuquerque’s crime problems.

“It’s a start,” he said. “Admittedly, it’s limited by what we can do in 30 days.”

Cervantes also said the state has increased penalties for some of the crimes included the omnibus crime bill in recent years.

“The initiative of the executive here is to come back a third time in three years and increase some of these penalties,” he said. “We’ve tried to find a good compromise, and we’ve increased some of those penalties in some places. But we’ve been pretty resistant to most of those because there’s no data to support them as a true deterrent to crime other than the fact that the people who are charged and convicted are in prison.”

Later, Cervantes indicated politics was at play.

“We keep doing this because, of course, it’s sexy politics, to say we’re going to get tough on crime by increasing the penalties,” he said.

Cervantes reiterated the point Wednesday.

“It plays well; it’s good politics,” he said, adding he’s repeatedly requested data from law enforcement showing a corresponding decline of offenses when the Legislature has increased penalties.

“They’ve never been able to provide any data or evidence to suggest that, although we’ve done this repeatedly now,” he said.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.