Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, read the letter [from former Gov. Gary Johnson] today on the Senate floor. Here’s what it said:
We are all shocked and angered when a violent repeat offender harms or murders someone in our state. After all, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world among developed nations — and New Mexico is no exception. How is it, then, that a habitual violent offender returns to the streets to do grave harm?
There are a number of reasons: Overcrowded jails. Parole practices. Bad decisions by judges and corrections personnel. Or sometimes, it may just be a mistake. The sad reality of any judicial system is that it is not perfect.
New Mexico’s crime rate is too high. We have seen some horrific violent crimes recently, and we want to do something about it. That is as it should be.
But doing something and solving the problem are not always the same. I understand the desire to “crack down” on violent repeat offenders. In fact, when I first ran for Governor, getting crime under control was a major part of my platform. I get incensed when a guy walks out of prison and proceeds to hurt or kill someone. And I certainly understand the pressure on legislators, the Governor, and law enforcement to “do something”. I’ve been there.
However, when I was Governor, I witnessed — and probably participated in — some flawed attempts to solve problems. I vetoed literally hundreds of bills that were clearly well-intended, but that, in my judgement, would do more harm than good, or at a minimum, would have unintended consequences.
Just such a bill is before the New Mexico legislature right now. House Bill 56 would substantially expand the state’s three strikes law, increasing the number of crimes included under the state’s habitual offender law.
Contrary to their intent, mandatory minimum laws like “three strikes” do little to reduce crime. They do, however, help drive prison overcrowding and demand substantial increases in corrections spending. Those are among the key reasons conservatives in several other states are reforming “three strikes” laws to restore discretion to judges and reduce the number of prisoners being warehoused not because they are dangerous, but because mandatory sentences require it.
More important, after years of experience, legislators and policy-makers across the country are recognizing these one-size-fit- all laws don’t increase public safety. In Alabama — hardly a liberal stronghold, lawmakers revisited their harsh sentencing policies last year and expanded parole to reduce recidivism. Legislators in Mississippi scaled back that state’s mandatory sentencing scheme for violent offenses to address prison overcrowding. Georgia’s Governor has championed several criminal justice reforms including reduced sentences and addressing collateral consequences for ex-offenders.
Yet, some in New Mexico want to take us in the opposite direction.
Legislators should reject the “three strikes” proposal. Real criminal justice reform should allow law enforcement, judicial and corrections resources to be devoted to keeping violent, dangerous criminals off the streets — rather than clogging up the system with nonviolent offenders whose “crimes” do not merit incarceration.
It is tempting to believe mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes” laws will make us safer. And we want and need to be safer. But in reality, there is little evidence to show that such laws accomplish that. To the contrary, studies suggest that recidivism may actually increase with longer sentences. Likewise, there is the very real concern that “three strikes” laws have the unintended consequence of creating an incentive toward violence for the repeat offender who has nothing to lose by harming a cop or a witness to escape that third strike.
New Mexico shouldn’t spend millions to meet the requirements of a law that won’t work.