EDITORIAL: House Democrats' crime package deserves a serious look from GOP and progressives

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Sep. 22—With the homicide statistics in Albuquerque reaching critical mass, the Democratic leadership in state government is moving toward making anti-crime legislation a major part of next year's legislative session.

House Democrats from Albuquerque have announced a comprehensive package including changes to the state's pretrial detention system, expanded mental health treatment programs and increased criminal penalties, as well as gun-control legislation.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she's "absolutely" open to making anti-crime measures part of the 2022 legislative session agenda. And House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he and Lujan Grisham have discussed funding 1,000 new law enforcement officers across the state over the next 10 years.

At least some of the provisions, such as extending prosecutors' time limit for filing second-degree murder charges, have been previously pushed by House Republicans, some of whom are criticizing Democrats for being so late in calling for tougher anti-crime measures.

But politics should take a back seat to what needs to be done to address today's crime crisis. And this expansive crime package has plenty of good points, which should be supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.

On the hot-button issue of pretrial detention — regarding how and when judges should let defendants out of jail pending trial — Lujan Grisham said she wants to shift the burden of proof so that people charged with violent offenses are required to show they can safely be released, something the Journal Editorial Board has supported. Currently, the burden is on prosecutors, who must show that the accused represents a danger to the community and there are no conditions of release that will protect the public.

The Albuquerque House Democrats likewise support keeping certain individuals charged with violent crimes in jail until trial, an issue highlighted by offenders on pretrial release committing new crimes.

"I believe a rebuttable presumption for individuals accused of violent crimes can be a wedge in the revolving door of repeat violent offenses that have characterized the worst aspects of the crime our state continues to experience," Lujan Grisham said recently.

It remains to be seen whether enough progressives in the Legislature agree. Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said the change the governor supports "is guaranteed to sweep up the innocent along with the guilty." He said only 3% of people released prior to trial are arrested for committing a violent crime. "I'm extremely concerned about allowing the government to hold people in jail for months just because someone said you did something," Baur said.

That's a too-broad brush — we're talking about holding defendants with violent histories and charges, not folks accused of petty theft. And a UNM study shows around 1 in 5 felony defendants released pending trial were arrested for new criminal activity. That is far from inconsequential.

House GOP floor leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, accused Democrats of, up to now, helping create a rampant crime problem, "coddling criminals" and failing to give police officers credit and respect. Democrats might shoot back that Republicans have resisted measures intended to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people.

In another move supported by the Editorial Board, the Albuquerque Democratic House members say they will propose a new criminal penalty for failing to safely store firearms out of children's reach (an Albuquerque middle school student allegedly used his father's gun to kill a fellow student on campus recently). They also want to establish a state office of gun violence prevention.

There's presently a movement by Democrats nationally to push anti-crime agendas, as violent crime increases in many cities and to counter Republicans' continued use of post-George Floyd calls to "defund the police" as a political club against the Dems. In New Mexico, Albuquerque's out-of-control murder numbers highlight the fact that, whatever political moves may be in play, the status quo isn't working.

Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque and chairwoman of the influential House Judiciary Committee that hears crime bills, is on board with the proposed crime package. The liberal credentials of the veteran lawmaker are unquestioned — she was a leading champion of the state's 1999 repeal of the death penalty.

"What's become evident is that while we have been increasing our investments in long-term solutions like education, families, and mental and behavioral health, much more needs to be done to address the violence happening today," Chasey said.

That's the kind of comment that can help break a logjam.

To pass an effective package of bills, Democrats may have to get outside their comfort zones to address shortcomings in existing criminal law. Conservatives must understand that more police officers, more arrests, more prosecutions and prosecutors, more public defenders to provide constitutionally mandated legal representation for more defendants, more judges to hear more cases, and more jail or prison time (including during the pretrial period) expands government and costs a lot of money.

This may be a moment where politics and the facts on the ground combine to produce positive results. We'll see what happens in January.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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