A meeting of the Legislature's Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee endorsed several bills to reform some of New Mexico's criminal justice practices, but cast doubt on the prospects for some more far-reaching proposals presented today, including a ban on contracts with private prisons.
Earlier this year, Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas (D-Albuquerque), a member of the the interim Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee, told SFR that next year's legislative session represented the first opportunity in eight years to pass a serious slate of reforms addressing various alternative-to-incarceration ideas and other wholesale changes to the way New Mexico imprisons people and saddles them with criminal records.
"I think the big thing we must do is some sort of expungement law to give relief for folks with dings on their criminal history," Maestas told SFR in the summer. "Once you pay your debt to society, you shouldn't continually have to come into roadblocks."
In the end, the expungement measure did not win an endorsement from the committee today. But that doesn't mean it's doomed once the legislative session begins next month.
The proposal, Maestas announced at today's committee meeting, would allow misdemeanors to be expunged two years after conviction, violent misdemeanors after four years, and 10 years for both misdemeanor domestic violence charges and non-violent felonies.
In addition, a person whose charges are dismissed or who is acquitted at trial could have their records expunged after a year.
But the measure fell short of endorsement after outgoing Rep. Jim Dines (R-Albuquerque) raised concerns about the bill covering misdemeanors as well as felonies. He cited online dating as an area where users would be interested in whether potential romantic matches were ever convicted of battery charges.
"You can't put together a pattern of conduct," Dines said.
Alonzo Baldonado's (R-Los Lunas) "ban the box" proposal had more success. The proposed law would bar private employers from inquiring whether a person has been convicted of a crime on job applications. It was quickly endorsed by the committee. New Mexico passed a similar law for public employers in 2010.
Co-chair Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque), also said she planned to introduce a bill to restore voting rights for people with felony records in the upcoming session, including allowing prisoners to vote from their cells. No endorsement was offered for the idea.
In addition, a measure to limit the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico's jails and prisons won endorsement from the committee. Last year, Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, vetoed a bill passed by both chambers that would have brought New Mexico in step with other states by reforming state and county uses of solitary for both adults and children.
Meanwhile, a Hail Mary attempt by outgoing Rep. Bill McCamley (D-Mesilla Park) to persuade the committee to endorse a bill to eliminate all business dealings between the state and private prison contractors failed. New Mexico imprisons more of its people per capita in prisons owned or operated by private corporations than any other state.
McCamley came prepared with a litany of abuses and transgressions by private prison staff in other states, including harsher conditions for inmates, more violence, less adequate staffing and seemingly higher propensity for criminal behavior among prison officials, plus lower pay for corrections officers in private settings compared to public ones.
"This is a racket and we are the biggest victims of it," McCamley said.
McCamley acknowledged that somebody other than him would have to pick up his torch once the session convened. But committee members mostly complained that the proposed legislation was short on details, including how to grandfather in current contracts with private prison companies.
In addition, committee co-chair Sen. Richard Martinez (D-Española), said the state Department of Corrections under Gov. Susana Martinez has recorded $63 million in deferred maintenance costs, which he argued was a deterrent to housing prisoners in them.
"Hopefully you can find someone who can continue to carry this," Martinez told McCamley.
The committee also endorsed legislation to increase funds for police departments from the state's Law Enforcement Protection Fund. Under the terms of the bill, nearly all police agencies around the state would receive $50,000 for each department and $1,000 per sworn officer. The proposal includes university police departments, but not tribal departments.
As for an omnibus criminal justice reform package, composed of at least a dozen bills with various sponsors who were not present, legislators did not discuss whether some of the aforementioned bills would be included and which other proposals to include.