An Opinion by Diane McCash
The New Mexico legislature recently finished its 30-day, primarily budgetary, session. The governor may, however, call up any drafted legislation she chooses to prioritize. The sentence enhancement portions of the bill highlighted below, a bill that was passed 59/9 in the House and 42/0 in the Senate and signed into law by our Democratic governor, were originally contained in two of her “tough-on-crime” priority bills.
This was my third legislative session advocating for evidence-based, humane and effective Criminal Justice Reform. My family has not been immune to the impacts of crime and punishment. I have volunteered with ACLU NM, worked with other community advocates, testified in and also attended many legislative committee hearings to listen to legislators and to experts’ testimony.
HB6 “The Safer Communities Act” aka PTSD Presumption for First Responders (an amalgamation of three bills; HB 6, HB 35, and HB 113)
- Expanded permissible expenditures for officers engaged in community policing
- Removed a portion of the bill that would have simplified processes for first responders who are dealing with PTSD
- Increased penalties for a felon in possession of a firearm from a fourth- to a third-degree felony
- Increased the range of penalties for “brandishing” a firearm in the commission of a noncapital felony
HB 6 was a frustrating lesson in what can happen when “bad” bills and “good” bills are combined. As advocates, we end up not only asking legislators to vote against legislation that we know is ineffective and harmful, but we are also asking them to vote against legislation we might otherwise support. What are legislators thinking? Do they not understand, or do they refuse to believe, that sentence enhancements, for example, do not achieve a goal of reducing crime? Perhaps they downplay the harm in the “bad” portions of the bill to justify voting for the “good.” Where is the justification for their vote when the final version of the bill is stripped of its best part? Perhaps it’s political; they fear voting against ANYTHING that appears to be tough-on-crime because they fear their constituents will vote against them.
The increased penalties in HB 6 for possession of a firearm is a more-of-the-same, “tough-on-crime” strategy that evidence has shown to be ineffective. To be fair, the final versions of the sentence enhancements in HB6 were “not so bad” compared to the original bills, except, perhaps, if you were the one serving the extra time—or their spouse or child or other family member and community.
In New Mexico, lately, and especially in Albuquerque, it has been ALL CRIME, ALL THE TIME in the media. Because of this heightened focus on crime and the looming elections, it seems our Democratic Governor and majority Democratic legislature ignored or downplayed the harm in this non-evidence based legislation and passed HB6 anyway.
I am thankful that other harmful “tough on crime” bills called by the governor this session did not survive to become law. I choose to believe that our advocacy played a role in stopping the harmful legislation that stalled out.