House Republicans launched into the special legislative session Friday by introducing controversial criminal justice bills, including a proposal to reinstate the death penalty.
But Democrats spent much of the day railing against Republicans, accusing the House majority of doing nothing to prevent crime while distracting from what was supposed to be the key issue of the session — solving New Mexico’s budget crisis.
Despite the criticism, the House Judiciary Committee approved two pieces of legislation and continued debating a capital punishment proposal into the night.
The 21-page bill to reinstate the death penalty in cases involving the murder of children or law enforcement officers was expected to head to the House Finance and Appropriations Committee on Saturday if it passed the Judiciary Committee. Meanwhile, the full House will likely take up an expanded “three strikes” sentencing law, as well as a proposal to allow a life sentence — which in New Mexico is 30 years — for intentional abuse resulting in the death of a child of any age.
The full 70-member House recessed about an hour after convening at noon with little talk of New Mexico’s finances. Instead, House leaders convened a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee to consider the three criminal justice bills.
But as Republicans introduced each piece of legislation, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee worked to steer debate back to the state’s finances.
“All this is, is getting even,” said Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, as the committee mulled a bill broadening penalties for child abuse in what is known as “Brianna’s Law.” “There’s no prevention.”
“Why are we not working on a budget to make sure there is not another horrific killing?” Alcon asked later.
In a statement, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, described the House maneuver as “irresponsible.”
“The people of our state need us to fix the state’s serious money problems before addressing any other issues, especially with the regular legislative session only three short months away,” he said. “Now is not the time to add further debt and stress to an already struggling judicial system.”
Longer sentences would mean more costs for the state Corrections Department, and probably public defenders and district attorneys as well, Democrats say.
As Republicans focused on criminal sentencing and Democrats called for greater funding for drug treatment and New Mexico’s child welfare system, House members demonstrated how a partisan rift has emerged over the very purpose of a special session months in the making.
Lawmakers began discussing the prospect of a special session in July as the state’s deficit deepened. But as the summer softened into September and New Mexico’s budget problems worsened, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez signaled that she would add to the agenda proposals to reinstate the death penalty and stiffen criminal sentencing.
The three pieces of legislation, with the exception of the death penalty, passed the House with bipartisan support during the regular session earlier this year but died in the Senate.
Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, proposed expanding the state’s three strikes law.
New Mexico was among the first states to adopt such a policy in the mid-1990s. But Pacheco said no one has ever been prosecuted and sentenced under it. New Mexico’s statute is too lenient, he argued Friday, as law enforcement officers and prosecutors lined up before the House Judiciary Committee to speak in favor of the legislation.
“No one is using the bill in its current state,” said Dianna Luce, the district attorney in Lea, Chaves and Eddy counties.
The families of murder victims, too, expressed support for the law as a means to remedy frustration with a justice system they say fails to keep killers off the streets.
“New Mexico has become a safe haven for violent repeat offenders,” said Nicole Chavez-Lucero, the mother of a 17-year-old Albuquerque high school student killed in a drive-by shooting last year.
But laws sending criminals to prison for life on the basis of three felonies have fallen out of favor around the country amid a bipartisan wave of criminal justice reform.
“There’s not a lot of evidence that it works to make people safer,” Steven Allen, director of public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, told committee members. “We need safe communities in New Mexico. We all agree on that. But we have to be smarter and more creative.”
Lawmakers also raised concerns about the bill’s scope. A Senate committee amended the legislation when it was introduced this year, narrowing it to violent crimes that caused death or injury.
“This is a net so wide it is capturing people who have never actually harmed anyone in their lives,” said Kim Chavez Cook of the state Law Offices of the Public Defender.
The amendment was a deal breaker for Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, who said she would vote in favor of it later if its scope is narrowed.
Committee members passed the measure 8-4, mostly along party lines.
House Republicans also propose to expand a child-abuse sentencing law to impose life prison sentences in the death of anyone younger than 18.
Though Democrats criticized the bill as doing nothing to prevent child abuse, it cleared the Judiciary Committee on a 12-1 bipartisan vote.
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, voted against the measure. “We are engulfed in an unconstitutional budget crisis, and we should devote 100 percent of our time and attention to that,” he said.
The bill is called Brianna’s Law for Brianna Lopez, an infant killed in 2002 in Las Cruces by members of her family. The original law approved in 2005 imposes a life sentence for a conviction on a charge of child abuse resulting in death if the victim is under the age of 12. The revamped law would mean a life sentence for killing someone younger than 18.
In the regular legislative session this year, the bill cleared the House 63-0 but died in the Senate.
The governor’s decision to add it to the agenda for the special session came just one week after Brianna’s mother was released from prison.
Legislators have not considered a bill to reinstate the death penalty in years.
Lawmakers and then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, repealed the death penalty in 2009. Martinez, a former prosecutor, called to reinstate capital punishment when she took office in 2011. But bills to do so languished, and Martinez was largely silent on the issue until this summer.
In calling on legislators to reinstate the death penalty, Martinez has referenced several killings that have shocked the state in recent months, such as the shooting of a Hatch police officer and the sexual assault, slaying and dismemberment of a 10-year-old Albuquerque girl. The Republican legislators representing their districts introduced the capital punishment bill Friday.
But Democrats and death penalty opponents, including the state’s Catholic bishops, have criticized the proposal as a distraction. They say the measure would be more appropriate for the regular 60-day session starting in January instead of melding the measure into a brief session that was supposed to be about fixing the budget problems.
The House Judiciary Committee heard comments from the public — a stream of clergy, law enforcement officers and the families of homicide victims — for more than an hour and a half Friday night. The measure was expected to pass with a vote along party lines.
Republicans quickly worked the controversial criminal justice legislation into campaign advertisements slamming Democrats.
Advance New Mexico Now, a political action committee tied to the governor, is airing radio ads promoting the governor’s bills and suggesting liberal politicians have for too long let criminals go with “a slap on the wrist.”
Meanwhile, the campaign of Sen. Lee Cotter, R-Las Cruces, has created a mailer criticizing his Democratic challenger, Rep. Jeff Steinborn, for his opposition to the death penalty.
Featuring a smiling, uniformed police officer, the mailer is emblazoned with large letters claiming “we can’t trust Jeff Steinborn to keep us safe!” It touts Cotter’s support for reinstating capital punishment.