Several significant criminal justice bills still alive as session nears end

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Jeff Proctor/New Mexico In Depth

Democratic legislative leaders predicted criminal justice reform would be among the top priorities for the 60-day session that began in January.

It appears they were right.

Several substantial shifts in how New Mexico approaches crime and punishment remain alive as the session speeds toward its conclusion on Saturday. Some of them have been years in the making.

A Senate bill to “ban the box,” prohibiting private sector employers from inquiring about people’s past criminal records in the early stages of an employment process, has passed the upper chamber and appears headed for a vote in the House.

The House earlier this month passed restrictions on how jail and prison officials use solitary confinement against inmates. That bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee awaiting a hearing.

And a pair of so-called “omnibus” criminal justice bills that would overhaul everything from the state’s data-collection and data-sharing procedures to the way eyewitness testimony is used in criminal cases to ensuring crime victims have a voice in the system are headed for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk, having passed both chambers unanimously.

Here’s a look at eight criminal justice-related bills New Mexico In Depth is tracking during the last week of the session, what they’d do and where they stand with just five days to go:

HB564, “Probation and Parole, Good Behavior” would, as the bill’s name suggests, make several changes to the state’s probation and parole systems, including an emphasis on helping people reintegrate into society after serving their time and using “risk assessment tools” to help identify who is ready to be released. The bill also would mandate a shift in state law: from inmates who are serving 30-years-to-life sentences having to show why they should be released after three decades to requiring the Parole Board to demonstrate convincingly why they should remain locked up. The measure aims to address what some lawmakers have called systemic injustices and abuses of power by the Parole Board after a 2017 NMID investigation dug into the process. The bill passed the House Feb. 24 on a 51-16 vote and is headed for its second Senate committee.

SB96, “Ban the Box” is legislators’ most recent effort at leveling the employment playing field for previously convicted felons. Lawmakers passed a nearly identical bill in 2017, but then-Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it. Senators passed this year’s version Feb. 22 by a 28-11 margin and, after passing various House committees, it is on the House calendar.

SB408, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, made some splashy news when he told NMID in January that “Drug Possession as Misdemeanor” would be on the docket this session. The measure would do exactly that: make “simple possession” of nearly all drugs — including substances such as heroin and cocaine — a misdemeanor. Currently, possessing any amount of several drugs is a felony in New Mexico. Perhaps not surprisingly, this bill isn’t gaining much traction; after passing Senate Public Affairs, it sat for a few weeks before the Senate Judiciary Committee moved it along. It’s been on the Senate calendar since March 2.

HB370, “Criminal Record Expungement Act” would allow people to petition a judge to have some past arrests, indictments and even convictions wiped from their records. This is one of several bills sponsors hope would remove the stigma of past run-ins with the criminal justice system and give people a fuller shot at living productive lives. But it has drawn howls from transparency advocates, who say it would amount to whitewashing history and the public’s right to know. The House passed the measure 52-17 on Feb. 26, and it’s on the Senate calendar now.

HB356, “Cannabis Regulation Act,” would, with a number of caveats, legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. On the criminal justice front, the House version of the bill — there’s a Senate version, too — would require courts to reopen the case of anyone still locked up on a charge of possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. (There are some other justice system-related aspects of the bill, too.) The bill cleared the House last week on a razor-thin, 36-34 vote, and is now in the Senate Finance Committee.

HB364, “Corrections Restricted Housing Act” would limit the state Corrections Department’s use of solitary confinement — defined as inmates spending 22 hours or more a day alone for 15 or more consecutive days — particularly on juveniles, pregnant women and people living with a serious mental illness. It also would require the state’s prisons and county jails to better track the use of solitary and issue regular public reports. This is another bill that passed both chambers in nearly identical form two years ago, only to meet Martinez’s veto pen. This time around, it has passed the House by a huge margin (61-2) and was set to be heard in Senate Judiciary early this week.

HB267, “Criminal Justice Reforms” is one of the so-called “omnibus” criminal justice bills. It was born of the Legislature-mandated work of a task force chaired by former state Supreme Court justice Ed Chavez and aims to formalize how several different criminal justice entities gather information about people who enter the system, track that data and share it with other entities. The goal: to separate truly dangerous individuals from those who need help with mental health and substance abuse issues. Not a single vote has been cast against this bill — it passed the House March 5 62-0 and the Senate on Sunday by 40-0. It’s headed for the governor’s desk.

HB342, also called “Criminal Justice Reforms,” this is the other “omnibus.” Its intent also is to improve the way the justice system serves people living with mental illness and substance abuse problems. Additionally, it would require training for law enforcement in the area of eyewitness identification in crimes, mandate notification of various steps in the process to crime victims and their families and other changes. The proposal has passed both chambers unanimously and is back on the House concurrence calendar. If the House concurs with Senate changes, the bill heads to Lujan Grisham for signature or veto.

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