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Why New Mexico is bucking criminal justice trends (+video)

New Mexico is toughening its sentencing laws, including a proposal would add more violent felonies to the list of crimes that make habitual offenders with three or more convictions eligible for life sentences.

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    Veronica Garcia, mother of slain 4-year-old Lilly Garcia, testifies at the regulatory and public affairs committee for Rep. Paul Pacheco’s bill, R-Albuquerque, that would add felonies to the state’s “three strikes” law for sentences of life in prison, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016 in Santa Fe, N.M.
    (Luis Sánchez Saturno/Santa Fe New Mexican via AP)
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Criminal justice reform has become a hot topic around the nation amid a conversation about easing three-strikes sentencing laws, scaling back mandatory sentencing laws and focusing on rehabilitation.

That's not the case in New Mexico, where lawmakers assembled last week for a new legislative session.

Lawmakers and the governor are pushing a tough-on-crime agenda in response to the killings of two police officers and a 4-year-old girl who was shot during a road-rage dispute. The agenda is reminiscent of a wave of 1990s anti-crime laws that are being reversed in some states just as New Mexico takes them up.

"What we're trying to do is provide legislative solutions to keep this handful of violent offenders off the street," said Rep. Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican and the House Majority leader. "Our No. 1 job as legislators is to make sure people are safe in their homes."

Nearly 20 pieces of proposed legislation aim to crack down on criminals and extend prison terms for violent career felons, repeat DWI offenders, parole jumpers and others. The proposals include a mandatory-minimum sentencing measure, expansion of the state's three-strikes law, making the targeted killing of a police officer a hate crime and a constitutional amendment to overhaul bail rules in New Mexico.

Gentry and other Republicans say the sentencing measures are needed to confront violent crime, while some Democrats argue the proposals are outdated and lack specifics on how the state should pay for putting prisoners behind bars for longer stretches.

"It's a 1990s tough-on-crime approach, highlighted by I think these three-strike proposals," said Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat. "It's an outdated model that I'm not going to support."

Lawmakers regard the hard-line crime legislation as a prelude to the fall election season, when the entire New Mexico Legislature is up for re-election, and possible political attack ads painting some lawmakers as soft on crime.

Albuquerque-based pollster Brian Sanderoff said multiple polls show crime has overtaken economic concerns as the top preoccupation among New Mexico residents for the first time since the financial crisis.

"The economy ruled the day for all those years, and crime is starting to take over," he said. "Politicians sense that."

On Tuesday in Santa Fe, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez opened the legislative session with an impassioned call for tougher sentencing provisions for repeat felons, drunken drivers and crimes related to child pornography.

"We have vicious, heinous criminals among us," said the governor, invoking her background as a former district attorney and upbringing as the daughter, and later wife, of police officers. "We see teens terrorizing neighborhoods late at night. ... It's our job to fix it, and there's a lot we can do."

Nationally, as the violent crime rate drops, there are moves to roll back mandatory sentencing and push forward on other criminal justice reforms, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

As part of the comprehensive White House reform initiative, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said in October that 6,000 inmates will be granted early release between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2.

As of Tuesday morning, dozens of non-violent prisoners have been from Kentucky prisons under the US Sentencing Commission’s decision last year to cut prison terms in order to ease overcrowding.

Last month, the Senate introduced a bipartisan proposal to limit mandatory sentencing, ban solitary confinement, and promote reentry programs. A week later, the Republican-led House unveiled its own watered downlegislation that nonetheless marks a significant forward step on a traditionally liberal issue.

Here's a look at some of the measures up for debate in New Mexico:

BAIL REFORM

A constitutional amendment to reform New Mexico's bail bond system is the only measure to garner sweeping bipartisan endorsements so far.

Democratic and Republican leadership, judges, the governor and the bail bond industry support a component of the bill that would let judges deny bail to high-risk suspects considered a danger to the public as they await trial.

The state constitution guarantees people the opportunity to get out of jail before trial, with the narrow exception of those accused of the most serious felonies. Critics say that routinely allows violent defendants out on the streets.

Another provision in the bail amendment would adjust New Mexico law to grant pretrial release to cash-strapped suspects of nonviolent crimes who lack the money to make bail. It's part of a national movement away from cash bonds and toward analytics and risk-based decisions.

The section has received mixed support, and the bail bond industry strongly opposes it.

A similar amendment in New Jersey was approved by voters and signed by GOP presidential candidate Gov. Chris Christie two years ago.

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THREE STRIKES

A proposal would add more violent felonies to the list of crimes that make habitual offenders with three or more convictions eligible for life sentences.

Members of the law enforcement community have criticized the state's current version of the law. They say it's so narrow that no one has been convicted under the law since it took effect two decades ago.

The change is being proposed after California eased its three-strikes law, once the nation's toughest and partly blamed for overcrowded prisons. U.S. lawmakers are considering reducing life sentences for three drug-related crimes under the federal three-strikes law.

Rep. Paul Pacheco, an Albuquerque Republican and former police officer, has stressed that his bill would affect only violent criminals.

The mother of 4-year-old Lilly Garcia, who authorities say was in the back seat of her father's pickup truck when she was shot and killed on Interstate 40 during a road-rage fight, has voiced support for the bill.

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POLICE SHOOTINGS

Rep. Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican and the House Majority leader, has proposed making targeted assaults on officers punishable under the state's hate crimes law.

The measure comes amid intense outrage over shootings by police nationwide, and as Albuquerque police are under federal oversight because of a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found a pattern of excessive force.

Some Democrats question whether classifying attacks on police as hate crimes is the right approach to deterring assaults on officers.

State law currently adds prison time for crimes motivated by prejudice based on race, sexual orientation, disability, gender, age or ancestry.

Gentry said it became clear over the summer and fall that "our protectors need additional protection" — a clear reference to last year's shooting deaths of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner and Albuquerque officer Daniel Webster. Both were killed during traffic stops by men with extensive criminal histories.

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes linked to extremist groups, said he isn't aware of any states that apply hate crime laws to attacks on police.

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MANDATORY MINIMUMS

A proposed mandatory-minimum sentencing measure would bar judges from suspending or deferring more than 15 percent of a sentence for voluntary manslaughter, first-degree kidnapping, assault on an officer, or drive-by shooting convictions.

The bill introduced by Pacheco runs counter to legislative proposals in Congress that would ease mandatory-minimum sentencing requirements for some nonviolent, drug-related crimes.

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