Democrats in the New Mexico House of Representatives announced months ago they planned to get tough on crime.
With start of the 2022 legislative session just weeks away, they now say they are ready to back up the boast with bills.
Republicans, who long have been calling for more stringent measures to boost crime-fighting efforts in a state with rising gun violence and increasing rates of other types of crime, are likely to join Democrats in what is expected to be a House-driven effort to toughen laws.
“I think the governor will be focusing on an all-hands-on-deck fighting crime package,” said Rep. Pamelya Herndon, D-Albuquerque, who is working on a bill addressing safe gun storage. It would impose penalties on parents or other adults if a child gets a hold of their gun and uses the weapon to make a threat or commit violence.
Crime has become one of the top issues in New Mexico, Herndon said. When walking in her own neighborhood, she added, she frequently encounters a constituent with a concern: “My car was broken into. What can we do about that?”
Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, a retired police officer, has unsuccessfully pushed for years to toughen certain crime laws, including an effort to eliminate New Mexico’s statute of limitations on a charge of second-degree murder, now set at six years.
The public is crying out, “Hey, you’ve got to do something,” he said.
“Unfortunately, politicians have to respond to what constituents are saying,” Rehm said. “I say ‘unfortunately’ because I think it’s obvious we should have done something sooner. It’s now a crisis, and we have to fix it.”
He and Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, plan to work together in the upcoming session on another proposal that would increase the statute of limitations in second-degree murder cases, he added.
Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said GOP senators likely will wait until they see what Democrats are proposing before filing any crime-related legislation. Republicans are working on crafting bills to stem crime “while at the same time keeping peoples’ constitutional rights, which is important,” he said.
Brandt said thinks Democrats might be more concerned about “election season” results than actually fighting crime in New Mexico.
Noting many Democrats gave former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and GOP lawmakers grief for being “tough on crime,” he said the fact that Democrats are “bringing all these crime bills kind of says we were right.”
Among the bills being considered by House Democrats: proposals to increase retention pay for police officers, impose more severe penalties for shoplifters and car thieves, and give judges more leeway to keep defendants jailed until trial if they pose a violent threat to the public.
Albuquerque lawmakers, in particular, have been under pressure to act as the city wrangles with one of the nation’s highest rates of violent crime. In 2021, Albuquerque saw homicides skyrocket; it matched its record of 81 slayings, set in 2019, by August and ended the year with at least 116, the Albuquerque Journal reported last week.
The shooting of four city police officers during a robbery and the fatal shooting of a student at a downtown middle school also led to calls from the public for officials to find a way to stop the violence.
The city and county of Santa Fe also saw violence spike, with 11 homicides in 2021 — not including the October shooting death of a renowned cinematographer on a movie set — as well as six shootings by police officers, four of them fatal.
In November, a state Legislative Finance Committee report said New Mexico’s violent crime rate had increased 30 percent between 2014 and 2020. The report also said the violent crime clearance rate — the rate at which such crimes are closed, usually through arrest — fell 25 percent in that same time period.
The committee also reported the number of law enforcement officers in the state remained stagnant during much of that time.
New Mexico State Police has a vacancy rate of about 11 percent, according to Officer Dusty Francisco, a spokesman for the agency. Santa Fe police interim Chief Paul Joye cited a vacancy rate of just over 20 percent in his department, with the investigations unit down by about a third of its officers.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is calling for a $100 million investment to hire more police officers around the state. Her spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, wrote in an email Wednesday that it likely wouldn’t involve its own legislation but instead would be an item included in her state budget proposal for fiscal year 2023.
Rep. Meredith Dixon, D-Albuquerque, said she is drafting a bill to provide 5 percent raises for officers in an effort to retain them. “We can’t continue to hire and recruit more officers without working to retain them,” she said, adding her bill also will call for an analysis of the incentive’s effectiveness.
Homicides and a lack of police presence are not the only law enforcement issues plaguing New Mexico. The state — especially Albuquerque — often falls among the top 10 states in the nation for its rate of auto thefts. Dixon and Rehm are both working on legislation to create tougher penalties for so-called chop shops, illegal operations that strip stolen vehicles for parts.
Chop shop operators are now prosecuted under state racketeering laws, which, Dixon said, are difficult to prosecute. Her bill proposes a third-degree felony charge against operators. She said the change would make it easier for law enforcement to pursue cases.
Another proposal favored by Lujan Grisham, one that might court controversy, is a bill to amend the state’s pretrial detention law. It would require a defendant accused of a violent crime to prove they have a right to be released from jail before their trial — rather than putting the onus on prosecutors to provide evidence the defendant poses too great a risk to the community to be released.
The debate over imposing stricter guidelines for pretrial release of such defendants, who are presumed innocent until they are found guilty at trial, has been a contentious one. Critics say the guidelines would disproportionately affect minorities, and they argue defendants could end up staying behind bars for months awaiting a trial date — time they cannot gain back if they are acquitted.
The University of New Mexico’s Institute of Social Research conducted a study analyzing over 10,000 cases in Bernalillo County in which defendants charged with felonies were released from custody pending trial between July 2017 and March 2020. It found 95 percent of the defendants were not arrested for a violent crime during that release period. Of those who were arrested, the report said, most were charged with misdemeanors or fourth-degree felonies.
Still, the system is not entirely working for the good of the public, said Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque.
She pointed to Darian Bashir, who recently was found guilty of fatally shooting UNM baseball player Jackson Weller in 2019.
Bashir had a history of criminal violence, at the time of Weller’s death he was on a supervisory release plan while awaiting trial on a charge of shooting an assault weapon from a car at another vehicle.
“That’s frustrating to the public,” Matthews said. “They don’t understand it. I don’t understand it. We have to have a balance. Defendants have a right, an interest to stay free, but society has a right to protect itself from people who commit violent crimes.”
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-chairman of the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, said Friday he expected the Senate to take “a hard look” at legislation that would change New Mexico’s pretrial detention laws.
“There are a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the current outcomes on those initiatives,” he said.
Rehm, who also is working on a bill to impose stricter conditions for pretrial release and one that would create harsher penalties for serial shoplifters, said he believes the public is demanding action on crime.
He said he is glad Republicans and Democrats are “going to work together to get this stuff passed.”
Future election results — including for next year’s House seats — could center on reducing crime, Rehm noted.
Dixon said Democratic representatives in swing districts in the state “know it’s a big issue for constituents. I absolutely think this could be a game changer in an election.”
Herndon agreed. “That is very much a concern for me,” she said.
“People are saying, ‘We put you in office. What are you going to do to make sure we’re safe?’ ”