An Ounce of Prevention

At the outset, let me say that I make no excuses for those who engage in criminal behavior. If you break the law, particularly if it is knowingly done, you should expect to assume the consequences. No exceptions, be you the secretary of state, law enforcement personnel or a petty criminal who accidentally kills someone in a drug-related robbery.

But we know (or should) that not everyone is held equally accountable for the consequences of their illegal behavior. Justice is neither blind nor fairly distributed. The price tag attached to one's lawyer, and often political connections, count in the price that a felon pays. Just as race, class, economic status, fame and education can shape the fates of felons.

So when I read a number of news stories about New Mexico legislators pre-filing more than a dozen crime bills for this year's short legislative session, it triggered my BS detector.

Recent high-profile crimes (the murders of Lilly Garcia and Officer Daniel Webster, for example) and the general increase in crime throughout the state signal that we are facing serious challenges at every level of New Mexico society. But this is not new.

Back in 2012, Gov. Susana Martinez signed an executive order to establish a task force on criminal recidivism reduction. The goal was to study and assess issues "to include, but not limited to the areas of education, work, substance abuse, mental health, reform of pro-criminal values." Where is the policy to support the findings? Where are the findings? The governor's office has not responded to my request for the status of this report.

So why are our legislators compelled to act urgently now at our long-rising crime rate? Most importantly, why are their responses almost exclusively punitive? The obvious answer is that the November election season looms large, and all the legislative seats are up for re-election. Appearing tough on crime polls well and tugs at donors' wallets.

Propelled by what they say is the worthy cause of public safety, our officials have strategically deployed the phrases "repeat offender," "recidivism," "tougher sentencing" and most colorfully, "boomerang thug" to justify more and longer incarceration. Three strikes reasoning has arrived in New Mexico, folks. Never mind that it's being abandoned and reversed elsewhere.

This is an out-of-touch response. It also flies in the face of existing evidence about recidivism and successful criminal reform. The proliferation of jails during the last three decade has not slowed the growing crime rate nationwide. Why should it slow crime in New Mexico?

The pieces missing from this more-punishment approach to crime reform are fact-based analyses of the causes that propel people to commit crime. Absent of sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies, the reasons for crime are banal. The causes can usually be tied to bleak economic and social conditions, desperation and despair.

And those who've benefited most from longer incarcerations and tougher sentencing are those with financial and political investments in privatized prisons and the prison industrial complex. For more on this, read Ruth Wilson Gilmore's Golden Gulag (2007, UC Press).

Here's the Thing: It is difficult to value anyone else's life and future if you have no faith in your own. In lieu of real reform, politicians embrace the policies of punishment. Why? Because punishment is easier to say, and do, than confronting the reality of securing preventative measures.

I am no stranger to the perils of unchecked crime. My younger brother was senselessly murdered on the streets of my hometown. One of my dearest uncles died in police custody. At this very moment, I have friends and relatives on multiple sides of law enforcement: police officers, inmates and attorneys.

Punishment won’t fix my grief or bring back my loved ones. But I’d feel better if I knew other young people weren’t doomed to suffer similar fates because of the lack of commitment and investment in proven solutions to criminal activity that snatched them from me.

Andrea L Mays is an American Studies scholar and a Santa Fean. Write the author:

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