Martinez vetoes solitary reform, ‘ban the box’ bills

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Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen

Gov. Susana Martinez on Thursday vetoed two criminal justice reform bills that passed the Legislature with bipartisan support.

The first, House Bill 175, would have banned the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico’s jails and prisons for pregnant women and children. The measure also would have restricted the controversial practice of leaving people in a cell for 22 hours a day or more with no meaningful human interaction for people living with mental illness.

Martinez, a two-term Republican governor who previously spent 25 years as a prosecutor, also vetoed a bill that would have restricted private employers from inquiring about job applicants’ criminal histories.

In her veto message on the solitary confinement bill, Martinez cited the safety of corrections officers and a need to lock certain children sentenced to adult prisons away alone as her reasons for killing the measure.

“HB175 oversimplifies and misconstrues in such a way so as to eliminate flexibility and endanger the lives of inmates and staff alike,” she wrote.

Supporters of the solitary reform bill blasted the governor’s veto. They said it would have taken a needed first step toward curtailing a practice that has cost New Mexico taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in recent years to settle lawsuits brought by people who were damaged by long stints in solitary.

Matthew Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said he and others who worked on the bill tried to speak with Martinez and her staff during the recently concluded legislative session. She did not respond, he said.

“This is very disappointing, the veto, really,” Coyte said. “It also demonstrates that [Martinez] has a lack of understanding of the bill and the issue more broadly.”

Coyte and Steve Allen, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, pointed out that the union representing prison guards and some New Mexico jail officers endorsed HB175. The union, in fact, had been intimately involved in amending the bill as it worked its way through the Legislature.

“It shows the governor is out of touch even with the corrections officers who are doing the job,” Allen said Thursday.

Numerous studies have shown solitary confinement has an outsized, negative impact on children, pregnant women and people living with mental illness—which the practice can exacerbate and, in some instances, create mental health problems where none existed before.

“To not protect some of the most vulnerable populations in our state is very disappointing from our governor,” Allen said.

In addition to limiting jail guards’ and officials’ use of the practice, HB175 would have required jails and prisons to report regularly to the Legislature how they are using solitary confinement. Presently, there are no statewide statistics that show how many people are placed in solitary around New Mexico.

Solitary reform advocates have tried for several years to scale back the practice in New Mexico. Coyte said he believes a bill like HB175 will eventually pass into law.

“Meanwhile, we will teach lawyers to keep suing the government for this abusive technique,” he said. “There is no question the payouts will continue.”


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