NM guv candidates differ on plans for state’s troubled criminal justice system

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Attack ads, political bottle tossing and recriminations have marked this year’s race to replace outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez, who is leaving office due to term limits.

The campaign’s increasingly dark tone illustrates the state of play in politics here in New Mexico and across the nation. But under the tribalism lies something else: A set of stark differences in visions held by the two candidates, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce, who have both abandoned seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for a shot at the Governor’s Mansion.

During three televised debates, Pearce and Lujan Grisham have hurled broadsides and frontal attacks at one another on a host of issues bedeviling the state — from education to immigration, economic development to marijuana legalization, energy to water conservation.

Clashes over how to address New Mexico’s persistently high crime rates, particularly in Albuquerque, have torched some of the race’s oxygen, too.

Less ink and fewer minutes of airtime have been devoted to another vexing question hanging in the New Mexico air: How would Pearce or Lujan Grisham address the raft of deficiencies — some new, others decades old — in the state’s criminal justice system beyond rising crime rates?

At New Mexico In Depth, we’re approaching the end of our third year reporting on issues large and small in the state’s criminal justice system through our ongoing series, The Justice Project.

We’ve examined federal law enforcement’s role in New Mexico, Gov. Martinez’s use of her clemency power and her parole board, possible prosecutorial misconduct in Albuquerque, the use — and effects — of solitary confinement in the state’s jails and prisons and much more since our work on criminal justice began in early 2016.

Given the litany and our focus on criminal justice, we wanted to get Pearce and Lujan Grisham on the record for voters with answers to a wide range of questions on the topic in advance of the election.

Beginning in early July, we started negotiating with the candidates’ campaigns for an hour-long, sit-down interview to discuss these important issues. Despite some early progress, neither Pearce nor Lujan Grisham ultimately agreed to an interview.

Instead, both campaigns asked NMID to submit a handful of questions by email.

In some cases, it’s clear one or both candidates sidestepped the question entirely. In others, they provided fairly direct answers. And in one or two instances, you’ll see a complete non-sequitur. Taken together, what follows shows voters have a well-defined choice on the issues of crime and criminal justice when they head to the polling place to decide who will be New Mexico’s next chief executive.

The following questions were emailed to the candidates, Steve Pearce and Michelle Lujan Grisham. We’ve presented their replies in full, with minor editing for typos, grammar and syntax. We did not trim one candidate’s replies to match the length of the other’s replies. We also have provided context for the reader.

Jails and prisons

What is the candidate’s position on the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico’s prisons and jails? Would they consider restrictions? A statutory reporting requirement? Other reforms?

Pearce: Solitary confinement is a tool used by the state’s corrections facilities to maintain safety of the facility, the inmates, and the employees. That said, it is not without fault. The conversation regarding the improvement and reform of solitary confinement standards is an ongoing one in New Mexico. As governor, Steve Pearce will work with the Corrections Department, civil rights leaders, the state Legislature, and behavioral health professionals to find pragmatic and productive policies that will benefit our state. (Context: The first part of Pearce’s answer, in which he speaks to perceived “safety” concerns, mirrors the language in Martinez’s veto message. Ultimately, the unions that represent the state’s prison and jail guards supported the bill she vetoed.)

Lujan Grisham: As governor, I will work to reform the practice of solitary confinement, which studies and medical and psychological associations say causes negative mental health effects on children, pregnant women and people living with mental illness. Solitary confinement is also extremely costly, can lead to burdensome litigation, and studies have shown that it neither deters violent behavior in prisons nor prevents recidivism. On the other hand, there are instances where solitary confinement for limited periods of time may be needed to ensure the safety of inmates.

I am strongly committed to evidence-based policymaking across government. We must be particularly careful when we enact policies in response to a specific crime, a specific type of crime, or crime wave simply by increasing punishments. This holds true for the practice of solitary confinement, which is why I will work with stakeholders to reform the practice, protect vulnerable populations including children, pregnant women, and those people living with mental illness, and enact accountability and transparency measures requiring prisons and jails to report their use of solitary confinement. (Context: Lujan Grisham’s response reflects the positions of longtime civil rights lawyers, the ACLU and other groups that pushed for passage of the solitary reform bill in 2017. She, like the supporters, cited the well-documented effects of solitary on inmates’ mental health. NMID profiled one man who had clearly been negatively impacted by a lengthy stay in solitary that never should have happened.)

Would the candidates reconsider the use of private prisons, given their recent and historical records in the state? Would they push any reforms related to the use of private prisons?

Pearce: Not at this time. As governor, Steve Pearce will work with the Corrections Department and law enforcement to ensure that the state’s correction facilities are operating productively for the benefit of the state. (Context: Pearce, like many other New Mexico politicians, has benefitted from campaign contributions from the private prison companies that operate in the state.)

Lujan Grisham: In 2016, the Department of Justice concluded that private detention facilities were both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. We need to make sure that this is not true for private prisons in New Mexico. Too often reports have found that private jails and prisons are understaffed, have poor medical care, and have increased security risks, undermining public safety and their responsibility to taxpayers. Running jails and prisons is not an economic development strategy, which is why we need to diversify New Mexico’s economy to provide good job opportunities throughout the state and ensure that communities facing the closure of a jail or prison have resources to help people transition to alternative good-paying jobs.

As governor, I would support measures to hold private detention facilities accountable by mandating annual audits of facilities and practices to ensure they meet state and national standards and create a state oversight group to monitor facilities.

I will also evaluate contracts with companies running private prisons to ensure they do not incentivize keeping people incarcerated rather than preparing them for re-entry into the community. The primary role and purpose of New Mexico jails and prisons should be to promote and protect public safety. We need to keep dangerous criminals off the streets and help ensure that our communities are safe from further violence and damage. But another important responsibility is to reduce recidivism by providing resources to help people re-enter the community as productive participants who do not commit more crimes. I don’t believe that our criminal justice system focuses enough on this second role. We should invest in helping inmates return successfully to their communities through educational and vocational training programs and by connecting people to Medicaid coverage and critical health care services when they leave prison or jail.

I’ll appoint leadership in the New Mexico Department of Corrections who are focused on building a program that ensures safety and security while also providing prisoners with the behavioral health and addictions services, and the educational and vocational training resources necessary to succeed after prison. This strategy will make our communities safer and save money in the long run. Preventing re-offense is critical to bringing crime rates back down.

I understand that prisons are an important economic issue. In a number of small New Mexico communities, jails and prisons are among the largest employers, and closure can be a major blow. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to these issues. It requires working closely with local leaders and community stakeholders while targeting economic development resources and job training to create sustainable jobs in the area. (Context: Lujan Grisham does not appear to have taken any campaign contributions from private prison companies since 2016, according to an NMID analysis. Her response appears to reference an investigation by the Santa Fe New Mexican that found inadequate care administered by a private medical provider in the state’s prisons — and insufficient oversight from the state. She also alludes to the impact on Torrance County of the closure of a private prison there last year.)

Policing

NMID: From the candidate’s perspective, who in New Mexico polices the police? Should the governor have a role in that? For example, would the candidates support a statewide requirement that officers and deputies use body cameras? Why or why not? More specifically, would they mandate that State Police officers wear body cameras?

Pearce: The state attorney general, the state Legislature, the Department of Justice, and the governor all have a role to play in ensuring New Mexico’s law enforcement entities are operating legally, ethically, and in the best interest of the New Mexican people.

The governor, in consultation with the state Legislature and the State Police, has a role to play in the operations of the State Police. It is the role of state and local officials to set the policing standards and policies for each specific municipality. The use of body cameras has a number of benefits associated with them, but the use of these devices ultimately depends on the accessibility and policies associated with the information obtained while being worn. Steve Pearce is committed to correcting the state’s crime issue. He will work with law enforcement, civil rights leaders, local officials, and all other interested parties in creating policing policies that improve the New Mexican people’s lives, while also protecting law enforcement personnel.

Lujan Grisham: Local governments, including both local police and sheriff’s departments, play a leading role in ensuring the safety of our families and communities. As governor, I will create a statewide anti-crime task force and promote collaboration between all levels of government to increase public safety throughout New Mexico. Rather than impose a statewide requirement for all local law enforcement agencies, I will partner with those agencies to provide the resources for initiatives, including the cost of body cameras.  

As governor, with direct responsibility for the State Police, I will support the use of body cameras as an accountability, safety and transparency measure that would help keep both officers and community members safe.

NMID: And speaking of State Police, we have seen some serious allegations of nepotism, mismanagement and corruption arise against State Police in recent months. Does the agency have a culture problem? If so, how would the candidates address that? Would they bring in a new State Police chief?

Pearce: As governor, Steve Pearce looks forward to using the leadership skills he learned during his time in business and the military to create the most effective, accountable, and efficient government possible. This includes ensuring the law enforcement entities in the state are operating and acting accountably and in the best interest of the New Mexican people. (Context: Pearce sidestepped all three questions put to him here.)

Lujan Grisham: As governor, I will address any and all allegations of nepotism, mismanagement and corruption in the State Police department, as I would in any state agency. (Context: Lujan Grisham also would not address the question about the culture in New Mexico’s second-largest law enforcement agency, nor would she say whether it needs new leadership. While most governors eventually install their own chief at NMSP, it is not unheard of for an executive to keep a chief on board after taking office, at least for a time.)

Budget issues related to criminal justice

NMID: Given what appears to be some more money to spend, would the candidates support increases for judges — who are the worst paid in the nation — prosecutors, who are chronically under-resourced, and public defenders, who are even more so? How much of a priority, from a budget perspective, would criminal justice be for them? How would they reflect that?

Pearce: As governor, Steve Pearce will work to turn the state around. New Mexico is a state in crisis. From high unemployment, mental health issues, poor education system, to horrific crime rates, the state is at a tipping point. Steve Pearce is committed to working with the state Legislature, community leaders, and outside groups to provide the leadership and resources the state needs to succeed. (Context: This does not answer the questions we asked.)

Lujan Grisham: My administration is prepared to lead improvements across the criminal justice

system, not just focus on prosecution and punishment like the current administration. Our crime rate is completely unacceptable. We need funding for more officers and training, including community-based policing. Strong and adequately funded prosecution is also necessary to ensure that we are able to hold criminals accountable and fight for New Mexico, but it is just one piece of the puzzle.

We also need a judicial system that is funded at the level necessary to process cases in a timely manner. Though the current administration has largely focused on prosecutors, pay for judges, public defenders, and court programs is also important. I’ll support the pay increases and administrative resources these institutions need to do their jobs effectively. (Context: Lujan Grisham appears to reference how Bernalillo County DA Raul Torrez came away from the last legislative session, when there was far less “new money” to go around, as the biggest winner in terms of getting the funding increase he asked for. And it is indisputable that New Mexico has the worst paid judges in the nation.)