By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
A package of legislation introduced by a former police officer known for his tough-on-crime proposals was blocked Tuesday by Democrats on the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee.
While the panel could vote to revive the five bills sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque, the decision to table them likely means they are dead for the remainder of the legislative session.
“This Legislature has no desire to prosecute criminals — period,” Rehm said after the hearing. “I can’t believe how we’re not going after crime.”
The measures that hit a blockade would have protected merchants from being sued for stopping shoplifters; imposed a life sentence for a person convicted of a third felony; created a felony charge of using a firearm during a drug deal; enhanced penalties for possession of fentanyl based on the number of pills a person had; and increased the sentence for felons convicted of using a firearm to commit a crime to seven years from three.
Democratic lawmakers and members of the public who spoke against the bills said judges already have options that would accomplish what Rehm was intending and argued enforcing stricter penalties would not necessarily deter criminals.
Rather, they said, the state must do more to invest in mental health and behavioral health treatment, including for substance use disorder, to help stem violent crime.
Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, told Rehm his bill aimed at enhancing criminal penalties for fentanyl possession “doesn’t address the root of the problem for me.”
She did not see a connection between the penalties his bill would impose and “what we can do to reduce the harm caused by fentanyl,” she said.
New Mexico, and Albuquerque in particular, are known for high rates of violent crime, and crime fighting became a key issue in the 2022 gubernatorial race between Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, and her Republican opponent, Mark Ronchetti.
Lujan Grisham held a news conference last week in which she pledged to tackle the crime problem while surrounded by law enforcement officials and leaders of both major political parties.
Rehm’s ideas clearly were not in the governor’s master plan.
In many cases, the fiscal impact report report for a bill he proposed noted research has found longer prison sentences do not deter criminals as much as the fear of getting caught.
Rehm, who served over 20 years with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, disagreed.
Based on his experience in uniform, he said, “Criminals who spent a lot of time in prison didn’t want to go back.”
A woman who lost her 4-year-old son to a drive-by shooting in Albuquerque spoke in support of one of Rehm’s bills, arguing lawmakers have to act to get guns off the street. “I believe New Mexico has lost enough children under the age of 18,” she said.
Conversely, a woman whose son is addicted to drugs said she doesn’t believe putting drug users who commit crimes in jail will solve the problem.
While trying to defend a bill that would send a three-time felon to prison for life, Rehm said some criminals are beyond rehabilitation.
Referring to Jeffrey Dahmer, the late serial killer known for cannibalizing victims, Rehm told the committee, “If we think we can rehabilitate Jeffrey Dahmer, there’s no way.
“Not only did he kill people but, as you know, he ate them.”