Lawmakers and prosecutors appear as far apart as ever on reform proposals for New Mexico’s probation and parole systems, despite Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham admonishing them to find common ground in April. That’s when the first-term Democratic governor vetoed a reform bill — with significant consternation — that would have shifted the systems away from incarceration as a first resort and likely seen significantly fewer people returning to prison and jail.
The disagreements center largely on who should be locked back up for violating their probation and who should not, and a change that would have required the Parole Board to issue detailed, written findings when it denies someone’s release after 30 years behind bars. If changes favored by legislators become law, potentially thousands of people in New Mexico who are currently locked up would remain under state supervision, but not behind bars. It could burden the justice system, creating the need for new jobs and monitoring mechanisms, but also save the public millions in lock-up costs, legislative analysts say. Lawmakers have pushed the changes because they say a shift toward rehabilitation and providing services to lower-level offenders can help them turn their lives around and stay out of the justice system.
A long-sought set of reforms to the way New Mexico jailers and prison officials use solitary confinement kicked in July 1, barring the practice for certain populations and starting the clock on what civil rights advocates and lawmakers hope will lead to unprecedented transparency on the controversial practice in the state. Effectively immediately, pregnant women and children can no longer be held in solitary, and beginning in November prisons and jails around the state will start publicly reporting how many people are being held in solitary. Insufficient data has for years frustrated lawmakers’ and others’ ability to understand the scale at which solitary confinement is used in the state’s jails and prisons.
State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of House Bill 364 during the legislative session that concluded in March, sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and officials who run the 33 county jails across New Mexico, reminding them of the new statute’s requirements. Among the changes is the state’s first universal definition for solitary confinement: holding someone in a cell alone for 22 or more hours a day “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction.”
Previously, jails and prisons were using a patchwork set of labels and standards to categorize solitary confinement, often frustrating lawmakers’ and others’ efforts to snap a true picture of how the tactic was used in New Mexico. The measure required prisons and jails to stop keeping children and pregnant women in solitary — except in extremely rare instances — on July 1.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and all fourteen of the state’s district attorneys are asking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to veto a bill that would change laws governing probation and parole for criminal offenders. The prosecutors said in a letter Friday to the governor that the measure approved by the Legislature would jeopardize public safety. Supporters of the bill said that isn’t accurate. The letter is, at best, disingenuous, said House Judiciary Chairwoman Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, one of the bill’s four sponsors. “We are looking at a new day here and a lot of what is claimed in that letter, the exact opposite is true,” Chasey said Friday.
After a three-hour debate Thursday night, the state House of Representatives by a narrow margin — 36-34 — approved a measure that would legalize recreational use of marijuana in New Mexico. Any resident 21 years or older would be allowed to buy, possess and use cannabis under the proposal, which also would create a state oversight commission. House Bill 356 next heads to the Senate for consideration. If the Senate approves it, it would go to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has said she favors legalizing recreational marijuana if the proper safeguards are put in place. If such a proposal became law, New Mexico would become the 11th state to decriminalize marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law.
A handful of Democrats joined with Republicans at the Legislature on Friday to quash a bill that would have allowed the state to charge higher royalty rates on some oil and gas production. The first committee hearing for House Bill 398 turned into a showdown between New Mexico’s influential oil industry and a newly elected Democratic land commissioner who came to office pledging to collect a greater share of revenue from oil produced on the millions of acres her office controls. Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard argued that raising royalty rates is strictly good business for a state rich in oil and gas but that has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country. But the oil and gas industry countered that it already generates a large share of the funds for New Mexico’s government through taxes and royalties. Raising royalty rates, representatives from the industry argued, would drive away business and ultimately hurt the state.
The state House of Representatives voted 41-27 to advance a proposal to draw money from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for more prekindergarten programs.
“This bill … is a step in the right direction,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, a co-sponsor of the bill, along with Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, a fellow Albuquerque Democrat. “It could transform education in the state of New Mexico.” House Republicans, all of whom voted against the measure, cautioned that any drawdown from the endowment would affect its ability to grow. “Should we permanently damage the goose that lays the golden egg?”
Democrats campaigned last year on a promise to raise New Mexico’s minimum wage, which has remained at $7.50 an hour for a decade. How high it will go, exactly, is a question that quickly has become wrapped in a battle waged by the restaurant industry and could get caught in a tug-of-war between the state House and Senate. The issue has raised a series of other questions as well. Should there continue to be a lower minimum wage for workers who traditionally earn tips from customers, such as restaurant servers? Should employers be allowed to offer a lower minimum wage to younger workers, like high school students?
Democrats in the state House of Representatives say they hope to move quickly to approve a measure that would draw more money from the state Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education, thereby pressuring powerful Sen. John Arthur Smith to give it a hearing. The proposed state constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution 1, could get its first committee hearing within a week, far earlier than at any time in the eight years Democrats have pushed the measure. “I think it will be a priority,” said Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, who on Wednesday became chairman of the House Education Committee. He said that committee likely will hear new bills by Wednesday, though it’s unclear if the proposed constitutional amendment will land there first. The House on Wednesday assigned 155 bills for committee hearings.
Lawmakers are hopeful that 2019 brings an opportunity to significantly overhaul major parts of the New Mexico criminal justice system, after what one key state senator called a “lost decade” that saw myriad ideas but scant action. Bills are expected to address chronically high crime rates across the state, with a focus on speedier justice in cases involving violence and more lifeboats for people whose lesser crimes have saddled them with the stigma of a criminal record. Related: Lawmaker confident about criminal justice reform’s chances of passage
There’s talk of a massive “omnibus” bill that would feature changes to New Mexico’s probation and parole systems, reparations for crime victims, the way law enforcement uses eyewitness testimony to seek convictions and several other laws. Then there are the reforms that, in years past, have found support from both political parties but ultimately met the veto pen of Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor who for eight years stuck to her belief that New Mexico needed tougher penalties for lawbreakers, but largely stiff-armed proposals to address systemic injustices. Those shifts — likely to be proposed in individual bills — would include limiting the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons and jails, creating a pathway for some offenders to have their criminal records wiped clean after a period of time and prohibiting private-sector employers from inquiring about job applicants’ past convictions in most instances.
In the New Mexico Legislature, Democratic Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas’ name could be synonymous with criminal justice reform. Now, in his 12th year as a lawmaker, Maestas wants to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system. In 2016, when the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives and then-Gov. Susana Martinez championed legislation to increase criminal penalties and reinstate the death penalty, Maestas was the leading voice against those efforts. Now, Maestas, a former prosecutor, is headed into the 2019 legislative session armed with what he calls an omnibus package of bills that have historically seen bipartisan support, but fell victim to Martinez’s veto pen. Maestas thinks, with a new governor, this is the year for reform.