New Mexico lawmakers debate crime bills as session nears end
By MARY HUDETZ
Feb. 15, 2018
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's rising crime rate put public safety at the center of daily legislative debates this year in Santa Fe — from battles over funding levels for prosecutors and law enforcement to disagreements over how to stem child abuse, auto theft, domestic violence and other violent crimes.
In the end, however, it's been mostly a handful of bi-partisan public safety measures that have gained the most traction, out of more than 75 total criminal justice bills proposed at the start of the session.
Five of those bills have been combined into one wide-ranging package that includes both tough-on-crime sentencing enhancements and reform-driven measures.
It won final approval in the Legislature on Wednesday, and will be sent to the governor's desk.
The Legislature adjourns Thursday.
Here's a look at the bi-partisan omnibus legislation, and other key criminal justice measures this year:
This legislation addresses multiple levels of the state's justice system, starting with what's described as an attempt to bolster police ranks. For the next three years, police departments would be able to tap a state fund to provide $15,000 retention bonuses for veteran officers. Local police departments would have to provide half the bonus, and the state would match the rest.
There's also a measure to decriminalize low-level infractions, like littering — a move lawmakers say would free prosecutors to focus more on serious crimes.
Lawmakers also want to require substance abuse and mental illness screenings for inmates, and enroll those in need of treatment into Medicaid when they are released from prison.
Among the packages' other proposals: a bill to increase prison time for violent felons convicted of possessing a firearm, and more requirements for people with drunken driving convictions to have an ignition interlock device removed from their vehicle.
"This is a small step and by no means is this solving the huge problem we've got," said Sen. Peter Wirth, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader.
Sen. Greg Baca, a Republican and one of two senators who opposed the legislation, said it didn't go far enough in addressing crime, adding that he wished it included a child abuse measure he had backed.
A bill that would make the intentional and fatal abuse of a child up to age 17 punishable by a sentence of life in prison has stalled in the Senate after winning approval in the House last week.
Supporters of the measure have pointed to the recent death of a 13-year-old boy who authorities say had been brutally beaten and tortured as reason to pass the legislation.
The bill expands the victim age range for handing down life sentences in fatal child abuse cases. Under the law now, convicted child abusers can be given life terms only in cases where the victim is 12 or younger — a discrepancy the Martinez administration says doesn't take into account how extreme abuse cases of young adolescents often are.
Some have criticized the bill's approach, saying it addresses tragedies after a child has been victimized and killed, but may do little to prevent abuse at the outset.
Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, has expressed frustration that the bill hasn't gotten a Senate hearing.
New Mexico in recent years has been ranked among the worst states for high rates of domestic violence, which some have blamed on a criminal code they say does little to hold offenders accountable, especially when strangulation is involved. Two bills aimed to address the issue.
Under a key measure sponsored by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democrat, aggravated battery would be bumped from a misdemeanor to a felony in domestic violence cases where an assailant violently strangles a victim. The bill, which was approved by the Senate, was scheduled to get a House vote Wednesday.
In New Mexico, aggravated battery involving a household member is typically a misdemeanor, unless the victim suffers great bodily harm, or is attacked with a firearm or other deadly weapon.
Another bill from Rep. Monica Youngblood, a Republican, would require all law enforcement academies to include training on identifying and investigating strangulation. That measure has been approved by both chambers.
This story have been corrected to reflect that five bills have been included in the bi-partisan omnibus legislation, not six.