ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Ahead of a new legislative session, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has announced a handful of crime-fighting proposals addressing tougher penalties for certain crimes, law enforcement funding, and a shift to the rules surrounding what consider before letting criminals out of jail ahead of trial. The governor made the announcement alongside several Albuquerque city officials and various elected state officials in a news Thursday morning.
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The legislative package has four areas of focus, including proposals for tougher penalties for second-degree murder, increased penalties for crimes where a gun is used, a $100-million fund for public safety resources and a proposal to change rules surrounding pretrial detention.
“If you’re asking if this is a ‘tough on crime’ press announcement, make no mistake, it’s a tough on and prevent crime press conference with New Mexico’s leaders in that space,” Lujan Grisham said, speaking in front of an anti-gun violence mural on Zuni in southeast Albuquerque. “This is not just an Albuquerque issue, this is a state issue, this is a neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community issue.”
Pretrial detention changes
One of the most significant proposals comes in the realm of pretrial detention, an area of New Mexico law that’s faced scrutiny following New Mexico’s voters’ passage of a 2016 constitutional amendment. The reform was touted for a provision that guarantees suspects can’t be held in jail for the mere reason that they can’t afford to pay bond.
If a suspect is to be held in jail while awaiting trial, prosecutors are required to prove a criminal suspect’s “dangerousness” regardless of what crime the person is accused of committing. Critics, including Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez, have pilloried the current rules as placing an undue burden on prosecutors to prove suspects should be held in jail pending trial.
A new legislative proposal would shift the burden of dangerousness from prosecutors to defense attorneys representing suspects in violent crime cases. The bill is being referred to as a “rebuttable presumption statute,” meaning people accused of certain violent crimes are presumed to be dangerous and should be held in jail pending trial but an argument can be made against that presumption.
“If you’ve [been accused of having] committed a violent crime, the burden is on you (suspects) to demonstrate why it would be safe to have you go back into the community,” Lujan Grisham said. Referring to people accused of violent crimes who’ve been let out and accused of subsequent violent crimes. The governor said, “this puts a wedge in this revolving door.”
According to a news release from the governor’s office, the statute would apply to criminal suspects accused of murder, gun crimes, rape or other sex crimes.
Democratic Representative Marian Matthews, who represents parts of the Albuquerque northeast heights, is sponsoring the proposal. Matthews was first elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives in 2020.
“I wish there was no need for a presumption bill that I am sponsoring in the next legislative session,” Rep. Matthews said. “But we can’t ignore that our pretrial detention laws impact the levels of violence in the city and the state when individuals are released who have committed serious violent felonies and then re-offend, or when individuals feel there is no risk of consequences to them if they commit serious violent felonies.”
Reacting to the proposal, Raúl Torrez called the rebuttable presumption statute an “opportunity [the state] cannot waste.” He believes the package is “narrowly focused and narrowly tailored to the most serious violent offenses” in New Mexico law, saying the presumption statute will have “no impact on violent, low-end offenders and the types of individuals who, as a community, we believe can be safely monitored [while awaiting trial].”
“This signals to judges unequivocally, if this is an individual who’s charged with a serious violent felony or someone who’s recently been convicted of a recent violent felony, if they brandished or discharged a firearm, the presumption should be that that individual should remain in custody,” Torrez said. “It does not result in an automatic detention, there are procedural safeguards.”
Gun crime, second-degree murder enhancements
Two other proposals address enhancements to penalties related to certain crimes. First, the governor is proposing an additional three years of jail time for suspects convicted of second-degree murder. Currently, second-degree murder carries up to 15-years in prison.
“We want to make sure folks who are thinking about, who did, who are engaged, who are recruited in any activity that puts them in a position to commit a homicide and violent crime, you’re going to jail for a very, very long time,” Lujan Grisham said. “We need to stop putting individuals and criminals in a position where they’re assessing risk.”
The second proposed set of criminal penalty enhancements relates to use of firearms. The governor’s office is proposing a host of changes, including the creation of a new crime of “criminal threat” as a fourth-degree felony.
“Too often these are misdemeanors, particularly for first-time offenders,” Lujan Grisham said. “Not anymore.”
Another proposal seeks to make the crime of fleeing law enforcement that results in injury a third-degree felony and fleeing that results in great bodily harm a second-degree felony. The governor is also proposing enhancing penalties for brandishing a firearm in the commission of a drug transaction.
All of the proposals discussed Thursday have yet to be published but are expected within the next week. Reacting to the initial announcements, Chief Public Defender, Bennett Baur, of the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender said he had concerns.
“I’m concerned that the focus is all on police, prosecutors and punishment, and seems to ignore the effects that the proposals would have on the courts, public defenders, jails and prisons, and on what happens when anyone accused of a crime is eventually released,” Baur wrote in a statement Thursday. “The evidence is that people on pretrial release are not a significant cause of the increase in violent crime, and, in fact, incarcerating more people before trial, or with increased penalties, will further harm our communities.”
Law enforcement fund, possible raises
The fourth proposal announced Thursday would create a $100-million fund that every law enforcement agency in New Mexico could access to help with the hiring of officers. That money could help departments recruit, train and hire police officers and department workers.
“There has to be a meaningful tool so we’re not stealing police officers and law enforcement officers from one jurisdiction or another, we have shortages statewide,” Lujan Grisham said. The governor is also proposing as much as a 19% raise for New Mexico State Police officers, calling it “a long time coming.”