It’s been two and a half weeks since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and protests and demonstrations calling for police accountability have continued to increase. Calls to action include a push to defund police forces, demilitarization of police and a reform of use of force standards.
Now, many federal lawmakers are introducing and co-sponsoring bills aimed at changing standard practices and in some cases how police are held accountable in civil suits. Both of New Mexico’s U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich co-sponsored legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, that would change how citizens can sue police for constitutional violations as well as police use of force standards.
New Mexico has its own history of police reforms and calls for better practices — the Albuquerque Police Department is still in the middle of an attempt by the U.S. Department of Justice, to reform some unconstitutional policing practices. But attempts at holding officers accountable through civil suits in New Mexico often fall flat because of a federal judicial doctrine that ultimately protects officers from being sued: qualified immunity. Heinrich said qualified immunity makes it nearly impossible for plaintiffs to move forward with civil rights claims in federal court.
“Through the lens of Albuquerque, I think setting the new standard of qualified immunity is a standard of reasonable action,” Heinrich said.
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.
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.
If an interim legislative committee meeting on Thursday is any indication, 2019 could be a year when New Mexico lawmakers pass a slate of criminal justice reform efforts that were previously blocked by Gov. Susana Martinez. The Courts, Corrections and Justice interim committee met to hear recommendations from a subcommittee tasked with reviewing and crafting possible legislation, some of which addresses probation and parole standards and changing punishments for non-violent crimes. Most of the bills the interim committee discussed previously passed the Legislature with bipartisan support before they were vetoed by Martinez. A bill to “ban the box,” or prohibit private employers from asking about criminal convictions on employment applications, for example, was cosponsored by a Republican and Democrat in 2017 and made it to Martinez’s desk with significant Republican support. Still, Martinez vetoed it, saying it limited employers’ ability to properly vet potential employees.
A New Mexico advocacy group supporting criminal justice reform efforts released its report card Wednesday on legislation from the 2017 regular legislative session. Specifically, the group, NM SAFE, analyzed legislation aimed at changing criminal penalties. At a press conference, a few members of the group spoke about the analysis and what it means for New Mexico. Tanya Romero with the Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families said the state needs more reforms instead of tougher criminal penalties. “Domestic violence, a good percentage of it, is through historical trauma,” Romero said.
A poll finds that New Mexico voters say that crime prevention should be a priority over punishment. The group Center for Civic Policy, a progressive group based out of Albuquerque, commissioned the poll from Third Eye Strategies. The group opposes many of the bills to increase penalties that have been introduced this year. The poll comes as Republicans, especially leadership in the House, have focused the early days of the session largely on legislation that increases penalties for certain crimes. House Democrats have instead focused much of their attention on ethics, though the legislation they introduced has not yet been given the OK to be heard by Gov. Susana Martinez.
In a crowded conference room in the mayor’s office last November, reporters and police officers gathered to see Republican lawmakers and Mayor Richard Berry discuss their plans for combating repeat criminal behavior.A visibly emotional Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, told the room of his intention to toughen New Mexico’s three strikes law. “This piece of legislation is very personal to me,” Pacheco said. Pacheco, a former law enforcement officer, told reporters that he was personally affected by a number of violent, high profile crimes committed earlier in the year. In May 2015, Rio Rancho Police officer Gregg Benner was shot and killed while on duty. In October, Albuquerque Police Officer Daniel Webster was shot and later died from his injuries.
There was more political finger pointing in Albuquerque on Thursday regarding recent shootings and killings in the city, giving a possible preview of the next legislative session. Both Democrats and Republicans held press conferences outlining their proposed solutions to increased crime in the city. Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry has previously said he would ask state lawmakers to revamp laws in order to better protect both citizens and law enforcement in Albuquerque. On Thursday afternoon Berry was joined by House Republicans as well as a group of police officers representing various parts of the state when he again announced that he would push for changes to the law. Berry said he promised citizens and officers he would “push hard for reform.”
About an hour later, Senate Democrats gathered across the street from the mayor’s office and said it is Berry himself that is making the issue political.
A national conversation about criminal justice reform and employing convicted criminals is making its way back to New Mexico. After an unsuccessful attempt to pass legislation that would prohibit asking applicants about past criminal convictions, Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, brought the discussion to an interim legislative committee on Tuesday. O’Neill and Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, fielded questions and concerns from the committee. Rep. Rick Little, R-Chaparral, said he was concerned about the hiring of teachers and faculty who might be working with children. He cited the recent Albuquerque Public School scandal involving a former deputy superintendent.