Opinion: Governor has challenge in criminal justice reform
Last updated 11/27/2021 at 1:51pm
One year after leading the effort to strip police officers of their qualified immunity from civil lawsuits, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is now seeking additional funding for law enforcement.
The governor will call for an additional $100 million to hire 1,000 more law enforcement officers throughout the state when the Legislature meets in January, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
She is also expected to call for reform of the bail system, following a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2016 that limits the use of cash bonds.
The Governor’s Office has not yet issued a statement as to exactly what she will propose for the upcoming 30-day session, in which she controls the agenda.
This year’s 60-day session, where the governor did not control the agenda, followed a summer of protests held in response to George Floyd’s death in Minnesota. Lujan Grisham convened a civil rights commission, which called for a bill making it easier to sue police officers and other public employees for civil rights violations.
The governor signed that bill into law, along with House Bill 183, which eliminates fines and fees for a number of crimes committed by juveniles.
While other bills weren’t as successful, there were numerous attempts by the Legislature to curb police powers and reduce criminal penalties.
House Bill 263 would have established a uniform policy for reporting and investigating police shootings resulting in death or great bodily harm. HB 114 would have given judges more flexibility in sentencing habitual offenders. And, HB 140 would have eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for several crimes, including sexual offenses involving children.
This year, the pendulum has apparently swung back to the side of public safety, thanks to the continuing increase in Albuquerque’s crime rate. The homicide rate in Albuquerque is up by 75 percent in the first quarter of this year, with 35 murders through mid-April.
It’s not just murder, and it’s not just this year.
Albuquerque has long had one of the highest overall crime rates in the nation, and one of the most troubled police departments. Albuquerque police have been operating under federal oversight since a Department of Justice report in 2014 found a pattern of unconstitutional use of force by the department.
But, what is happening in Albuquerque is not happening in the rest of the state. Las Cruces police report, for example, that homicide rates have not changed. There is a slight uptick in robberies, but violent crimes were about the same as in past years.
The challenge for the governor and the Legislature will be to address what is a real problem in one city, without stifling efforts toward police and criminal justice reform in other communities throughout the state.
We don’t know yet what the governor’s plan will be. The report suggests that instead of devoting all of the new funding to traditional police, some may go to alternative methods of handling calls involving those dealing with a mental health crisis. The answer can’t simply be more police.
As for the bail system, the old system of cash bonds was not equal justice under the law. A $1,000 bond for the exact same crime was impossible for the very poor, devastating for the working class, and insignificant for the wealthy.
If changes are needed to ensure compliance with court appearances, fine. But they can’t result in poor people waiting for their trial date in jail, which was what we had before the amendment.
Walter Rubel is the former opinion page editor of the Las Cruces Sun-News. He lives in Las Cruces, and can be reached at: