Proponents of tough-on-crime policies aren’t throwing in the towel just yet.
In late January, the Republican-controlled New Mexico House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that would expand the number of violent felonies punishable under the state’s “three-strikes” law. Currently, New Mexico law mandates a life sentence for repeat offenders convicted of three separate violent felonies. The statute, if amended, would increase the number of felonies that qualify as “strikes” from five to more than 15 and add offenses like involuntary manslaughter and armed robbery to the list.
In recent years, California and other states have dialed back their three-strikes laws in an effort to reduce their prison populations. But New Mexico has headed in the opposite direction by moving to widen the scope of the law in an effort to keep more people, particularly repeat offenders, behind bars.
The bill’s supporters argue that the current law is inadequate and cite New Mexico’s higher than average rates of violent crime and a spate of high-profile cases in 2015—including the killing of two police officers and the shooting of a four-year-old girl during an alleged road-rage dispute—as evidence that people who commit violent crimes should be subject to harsher penalties, especially if they are repeat offenders.
The tough-on-crime proposals introduced during New Mexico’s current legislative session have struck some opponents as outdated, surfacing at a time when some states are retreating from the draconian laws that were mainstays of the 1990s. But the state’s current trajectory illustrates the difficulty of sustaining the momentum of criminal justice reform: When crime increases, punishment-oriented policies gain political traction.
In the days leading up to the January vote, Republican Representative Paul Pacheco, the bill’s sponsor and a former police officer, told the Albuquerque Journal that the tougher penalties would “incapacitat[e] a thin slice of criminal offenders to make New Mexico safer.”
However, critics have argued that the Pacheco bill would be an expensive undertaking that would have a negligible impact on crime rates. The plan would also eliminate judicial discretion from the sentencing equation: For example, one person convicted of three murders and another convicted of one act of involuntary manslaughter and two armed robberies would receive the same sentence.
In its assessment of the financial impact of the proposed bill, the New Mexico’s public defender agency concluded that the state’s habitual offender statute (which mandates extending a repeat offender’s sentence if the courts conclude that he or she continues to be a threat to public safety) has made the three-strikes law redundant.
Democrats control the state Senate in New Mexico, which makes it unlikely that Pacheco’s bill would become law during the 30-day legislative session that began in late January. But the sentencing proposal is just one of several pieces of “tough-on-crime” legislation being pushed by Republican Governor Susana Martinez and conservative state lawmakers prior to the November election.
Martinez made crime a centerpiece of her recent State of the State address, saying that, “we need laws that are tough in substance, not just in sound bites.” Other pending bills include a constitutional amendment that would change state bail laws, a measure preserving mandatory minimum sentences, and a proposal that would classify law enforcement officers as a protected class under the New Mexico Hate Crimes Act.
In December, the Brennan Center published an analysis of crime rates in 30 major American cities from 2014 to 2015. Researchers found that while some cities saw rates for crimes like murder increase last year, the overall average crime rate for most areas remained unchanged over the two-year span. The national crime rate continues to be significantly lower than the historically high rates of the 1990s.
“Legislators are reacting to certain things that might be happening in their communities, but if we're talking about this historically, we're talking about very, very decreased crime rates since the 1990s,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior counsel for the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice told the Christian Science Monitor. “There may be pockets of crime in certain jurisdictions, but it's important to not have a knee-jerk reaction.”