As budget talks dragged on, the New Mexico House of Representatives pushed ahead Sunday with a tough-on-crime agenda, voting to expand the state’s “three strikes” law to send more violent repeat criminals to prison for life terms.
The measure goes next to the state Senate, but it faces an uphill climb. Majority Democrats in the Senate may not consider any crime bills when they return to the special legislative session, having said the focus should be on the state’s budget deficit.
Republicans who control the House, though, have been spending much of their time on crime legislation since senators adjourned over the weekend.
New Mexico is one of 28 states that has a law requiring life sentences for certain criminals convicted of multiple violent offenses. But in urging House members to expand that statute, Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, described the existing law as “a joke.”
No one has been sentenced under it because it applies to offenders convicted of a handful of specific crimes, he said. Pacheco’s bill would double the number of crimes included under the three-strikes law. His proposal would include aggravated burglary, aggravated third-degree battery against a household member and first-degree child abuse, among other offenses.
In an emotional appeal for his colleagues to broaden the statute, even as other states scale back similar policies amid a wave bipartisan criminal justice reform, Pacheco, a former police officer, said: “I am tired of burying my friends. I am tired of looking at mothers who are telling me that they will never be the same because they had a child murdered or talking to a spouse of a police officer who no longer has a father or a husband or a mother.”
The bill Pacheco initially proposed would not only have expanded the number of crimes under the law but would have included cases in which no one was injured. But the House approved an amendment by Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, to limit the law to violent crimes resulting in great bodily harm or involving a firearm.
Though many Democrats voted for the three-strikes bill, passing it 49-14, they continued Sunday to accuse Republicans of attempting to distract from the state’s financial crisis by dedicating much of the session to tough-on-crime legislation.
The special session was intended to address the state’s budget deficit but Pacheco’s bill is one of three criminal sentencing measures Gov. Susana Martinez added to the agenda.
The House has yet to take up legislation reinstating the death penalty. On Saturday, members overwhelmingly approved a bill allowing a judge to issue a life sentence to those convicted of child abuse resulting in death, regardless of the victim’s age.
Democrats called for broader criminal justice reform.
“What’s more important, keeping people out of prison or sending them to prison?” asked Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, during Sunday’s nearly three-hour debate about the three-strikes measure. “If the only thing that matters to us is filling up our correctional facilities, we’re in the wrong business. We’re not doing our job.”
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said New Mexico is not being smart about crime. “The rest of the country is dealing with scarce resources, they’re dealing with overburdened bureaucracies,” Maestas said. “They’re dealing with that situation in a very scientific, mature and methodical way besides penalty enhancements that have become antiquated.”
Unclear is how many criminals could end up with longer sentences if the Senate approves the three-strikes bill and the governor signs it into law.
Legislative staffers analyzed the cost of Pacheco’s original bill, introduced in January, and said it would carry a large cost. They noted that the New Mexico Corrections Department’s budget has grown by $5 million, or 7 percent, since 2011 because the number of prisoners in its custody has increased.
But the analysis also said Pacheco’s bill could bring societal benefits if it can “reduce or delay re-offenses.”
The families of several victims from recent high-profile homicides gathered Sunday morning outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, to call on him to hear and vote on the House’s bills.
“On November 8 [Election Day], you now know what your legislators are doing for your community. Some of them are here working. Some of them refuse to,” said Nicole Chavez-Lucero, whose 17-year-old son died in a drive-by shooting last year.
Chavez-Lucero and other relatives of homicide victims spoke in favor of the crime bills during a committee hearing late Friday. But during debate Sunday, Democrats questioned whether the new three-strikes law would have applied in any of the cases the families discussed. Pacheco said it might have in one case.
Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or [email protected].