Traditionally, New Mexico’s 30-day legislative session is designed to focus on dollars — make sure there’s enough money to conduct the business of the state, both on the taxing and spending sides, pass a budget and return home.
In 2022, an election year and one in which the state is drowning in dollars, it won’t be budget business only.
Already, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democratic Legislature have said they want to pass legislation aimed at curbing a rising crime rate, targeting gun crimes and repeat offenders. To that, Republicans in the state are saying with one voice, “What took you so long?” They are more used to being ridiculed for raising the alarm about crime. Not this time.
While normally, we praise bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans working together on measures that could have unintended consequences is not a reason to cheer.
Everyone wants to see crime checked. It’s how it’s done that matters.
A record homicide count in Albuquerque — 117 in 2021 — has the entire state on edge. No wonder. Homicides in 2021 were 46 percent higher than the previous record of 80, with both records set during Mayor Tim Keller’s time in office.
Santa Fe is hardly immune to violence, recording at least 11 homicides in 2021. There were six shootings by police officers, too, four of them resulting in fatalities.
A Legislative Finance Committee report from November estimated the state’s violent crime rate had increased 30 percent between 2014 and 2020. At the same time, the clearance rate for such crimes — marking when cases are closed, usually because of an arrest — went down 25 percent over that period.
Even so, it’s important to point out that nationally, crime still has not returned to its overall record rates of the 1990s. It peaked in 1991 at 5,856 crimes per 100,000 and began declining before starting to increase again in recent years. The murder rate nationally, though, also went up sharply — increasing 30 percent in 2020, perhaps the largest increase in U.S. history.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI confirm what people see on the streets and in the news. More people are being killed, with firearms involved in 77 percent of those deaths.
Again, we remind everyone that even with these increases, the Pew Center reports the 2020 homicide rate of 7.8 homicides per 100,000 people remained 22 percent below the rate of 1991 (10 homicides per 100,000 people) and well below the rates recorded in much of the 1970s and 1980s.
None of that will comfort someone whose loved one died by violence. The same is true for property crimes. If your car is stolen from the driveway, you will not feel better knowing that more such crimes occurred in 1991. Crime is on everyone’s minds, and perception has become reality.
That makes it all the more important that the governor and Legislature get their crime-fighting tactics right. The worst outcome would be to pass legislation designed to appease voters but that creates other problems. We’ve seen it before. Anti-crime legislation — including the 1994 crime bill championed by President Joe Biden — stiffened penalties, gave states money to build more prisons, pushed to hire more cops. Yet crime had already peaked when it was passed, and many critics believe that legislation led to mass incarceration, especially from minority communities. This is not the model we need.
Yet Lujan Grisham wants to spend $100 million to hire police officers around the state. Other proposed legislation would increase penalties for certain crimes. There’s a focus, too, on changing pretrial detention laws. One ill-advised bill would force certain defendants to prove why they should be released from jail — that’s likely unconstitutional, given that people arrested have a presumption of innocence. This is not the right approach.
We’re still waiting for details on how much money will be spent to ensure enough prosecutors, public defenders, judges and court clerks to make sure anyone arrested will get a day in court swiftly and surely. Then there’s the issue of locking folks up safely, with well-trained prison guards and prisons where they can be rehabilitated as well as punished.
The state, rightly, is investing in its behavioral health system and in education. Those are long-term solutions to fighting crime, attacking the problem at its roots.
Complex issues take time, and in a state where people feel as though they are besieged by criminals, time is a luxury. Our advice to lawmakers is simple: Consider the unintended consequences of even the best-intentioned laws. Fund the justice system adequately so it works. A well-oiled and functioning justice system — that’s the most powerful crime fighter we have.
Don’t be tough on crime. Be smart on crime.