SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexico’s lawmakers are working to cut down on human trafficking and provide more protections for victims with a new bill. Sponsored by two Democratic lawmakers, the bill would create harsher penalties and remove prosecution limits.
House Bill 445, sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” Thomson (D-Abq.) and Susan K. Herrera (D-Rio Arriba, Sandoval, Santa Fe & Taos), would also require sex offenders to register as offenders if they own residential property but don’t reside in New Mexico. Such change could help prevent people like Jeffrey Epstein from skirting registration.
KRQE News 13 previously reported that New Mexico’s registration requirements allowed Epstein, who had already been convicted as a sex offender in Florida, to skip registering as a sex offender in New Mexico. Currently, there are over 2,000 offenders on New Mexico’s sex offender list.
The push for changes does stem, in part, from the Epstein case, Thomson told the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee on Thursday. “Our laws were not set up to deal with a situation like that.” But the bill is about more than just registration laws.
Currently, “there is a more severe penalty for trafficking drugs than there is for trafficking people, and that just doesn’t seem right,” Thomson said. Indeed, current law makes intentional first-offense drug trafficking a second-degree felony, but human trafficking a person over the age of 16 is a third-degree felony, with a basic sentence three times shorter. The bill would make it a first-degree felony to traffic anyone under the age of 18.
Not everyone was on board with raising penalties, though. “While I wholly understand the concern that our penalties for human trafficking appear to be low in comparison to other crimes, there is a technical reason behind that,” Kim Chaves Cook, from the Law Offices of the Public Defender, said. “Human trafficking, almost entirely uniquely in our criminal code, is not subject to double jeopardy protections.” This means that human trafficking penalties can be added on top of other penalties committed at the same time, such as kidnapping, Kim Chaves Cook explained.
But supporters noted that stiffer penalties could help protect victims. Several people who spoke in favor of the bill identified themselves as survivors of trafficking and said that the bill could help ease fears.
Rep. John Block (R-Alamogordo) seemed to agree: “These are predators who are harming our fellow New Mexicans,” he said, “and I think anything that we can do to keep them behind bars as long as humanly possible is what we need to do.”
Ultimately, the committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill. The bill still has to a long way to go before going into law. More committee hearings are slated before it could go to a vote in front of the House and Senate, then potentially go to the Governor for a signature.