By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
A bill to make missing or murdered Indigenous people or their dependents eligible for economic relief earned unanimous support from a Senate committee Thursday.
Native victims and their family members currently do not fall under the qualifying guidelines under the state’s Crime Victims Reparation Act, said Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, who brought Senate Bill 414 to the Senate Indian, Rural and Cultural Affairs Committee.
She said she did not realize they were not included until she attended a conference on the issue last summer. There, Frank Zubia director of the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission, told her about the omission.
Pinto said she believes that was an “oversight.”
In an interview after the committee hearing, Pinto said providing economic help to victims or their family members can alleviate additional stress.
“If a person who owns a home goes missing, you don’t want to lose the home while you are grieving,” she said. Children who have parents who have gone missing or were murdered would also benefit from the bill, she said, with financial aid to help them with support services.
The committee approved the measure 5-0. It now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration, Pinto said.
The issue of murdered and missing Indigenous people has led to the creation of a task force to study the issue and come up with ways to address it.
The task force, initiated in 2019, was developed after the Urban Indian Health Institute reported a year earlier New Mexico had the highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the nation since the 1940s, with 78 on record.
About 80 percent of the cases in the report involve incidents dating to 2000, while some of the remaining 20 percent occurred decades earlier, the report said.
One challenge in gathering accurate data — and thus in ensuring people receive reparation aid if SB 414 becomes law — is a lack of accurate reporting data among state law enforcement agencies and a question of which agency has jurisdiction over any particular case.
Citing an example, Pinto said if a missing or murdered indigenous person has ties to two pueblos, family members may be slowed down in reporting the case because they don’t know which pueblo has jurisdiction. Likewise, efforts to report such crimes in a city like Albuquerque may lead law enforcement officials there to send people to the home nation or pueblo of the missing or murdered person, she said.
“It’s become a really complicated thing,” she said.
Pinto told committee members she hopes her bill helps draw attention to the problem and helps clear up jurisdictional reporting challenges.
Sen. Benny Shendo, Jr., D-Jemez Pueblo, told the committee members, “There’s been a lot of families impacted by this.”
The bill’s fiscal impact report notes the Crime Victims Reparation Commission “assists victims of violent crime by reimbursing certain expenses related to the crime and by making distributions of federal grants for victim assistance… for necessary services and expenses and by funding programs that provide free services.”