A year of tumult over race and policing is coming to a head in New Mexico’s busy legislative session. With just weeks to go before it ends on March 20, lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills aimed at reforming law enforcement and several have progressed through committees. As a share of total introduced legislation, bills related to policing doubled this year over previous sessions, according to data from Legislative Council Service.
But it’s uncertain whether the state, which has one of the highest rates of fatal police shootings in the country, will take significant action. Save a requirement passed in last July’s special session that law enforcement statewide wear body cameras, the Legislature hasn’t enacted any major legislation related to policing in years. According to Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the quantity of proposals this year reflects the urgency of the moment.
Three years ago, New Mexico incarcerated about 7,400 people. Since then, the prison population has dropped, mirroring a national trend. It’s estimated that by 2025 the average prison population could be 4,938. The reasons for the declining prison population are unclear, according to a report prepared by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico for the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.
But if that trend continues, legislative analysts say, the Department of Corrections would have to find just 456 new beds, on average, if New Mexico were to end the use of private prisons after more than two decades and transfer all privately held prisoners to public facilities by 2025.The statistic is buried in a legislative analysis prepared for lawmakers considering legislation introduced by Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, the latest attempt to end New Mexico’s use of private prisons.
After a year in which police use of lethal force against Black people awakened large swaths of the American public to a discussion about systemic racism, lawmakers in New Mexico are looking to reform policing and better protect civil liberties.
The Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked mass marches across the country, including in New Mexico, to protest the unequal and dangerous treatment Black people encounter in interactions with police.
New Mexico is no stranger to calls for greater scrutiny of law enforcement.
The U.S. Department of Justice forced the state’s largest law enforcement agency into a consent decree after concluding in 2014 the Albuquerque Police Department exhibited a troubling pattern of excessive force, including one of the highest rates in fatal shootings by its police officers. The killings haven’t been limited to APD, either. Between Floyd’s death this Memorial Day and the end of November, there were 11 fatal police-involved shootings across New Mexico, according to local news reports and a database of deadly police shootings maintained by the Washington Post.
Since 2015, when the Post began compiling data, New Mexico has recorded 115 law-enforcement shootings, New Mexico trails only Alaska for the highest rate of fatal police shootings in that time – 55 per one million residents. Soon after Floyd’s death, the state Legislature passed House Bill 5 that created a temporary New Mexico Civil Rights Commission to investigate and recommend ways to hold public officials to greater account, with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signing the legislation June 26. Nearly four months later, on Oct.
Printed in white block letters, the question stretched across billboards around Albuquerque last summer. And it still haunts the mother of two, Elaine Maestas, who helped pay to put them up.
“What if emergency responders came armed with compassion instead of guns?”
In 2019 when her little sister Elisha Lucero’s mental health was deteriorating, 911 seemed like the only place to turn for help. “Leash” was in counseling to manage her worsening migraines and hallucinations, Maestas said, but she was deeply afraid of being hospitalized or medicated. So as her behavior became more erratic, she resisted her family’s entreaties to seek further treatment, and they felt they had no recourse but to call law enforcement to the South Valley address where she lived.
Fishing was one of Elisha Lucero’s favorite pastimes. In April of 2016 she met up with one of her best high school friends to fish at Tingley Beach, where she caught around seven fish off corn and fireballs.
As the coronavirus established a foothold in southern New Mexico’s Otero County Prison Facility in mid-May, state officials quietly moved 39 inmates out of the massive complex near the Texas border to another prison near Santa Fe. The inmates shared something in common: None was a sex offender. In the days before the 39 departed the massive correctional complex where New Mexico’s only sex offender treatment program is housed, officials were still transferring sex offenders from other state prisons into Otero. It was a routine practice they had yet to stop, even though more than a dozen COVID-19 cases had already emerged elsewhere in the prison.
Six weeks later, 434 inmates — or 80% — have the virus, within a prison population that’s now entirely composed of people who, at one time or another, were convicted of a state sex offense. Three have died.
Protesters of the police killing of George Floyd organized a protest caravan in Albuquerque, NM, May 28. Credit: Shaun Griswold
This story was published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. New Mexico In Depth is an investigative, nonprofit newsroom that occasionally republishes stories that have particular relevance to New Mexicans. Don’t miss out, sign up to receive our stories soon after they’re published. Every weekday morning, mental health clinician Carleigh Sailon turns on her police radio in downtown Denver and finds out who she can help next.
A New Mexico state senator wants prosecutors to decide much more quickly whether a police use of force is criminal — and to show the public their work as they go. And state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, wants the attorney general to oversee the whole process, bringing uniformity to a patchwork system of legal reviews that has left victims of police violence and their families frustrated and angry over a lack of clarity, accountability and swiftness. Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez
She plans to introduce a bill — co-sponsored by three other Albuquerque Democrats, Jerry Ortiz y Pino, Gail Chasey and Patricia Roybal Caballero — for consideration at what’s expected to be a short, whirlwind legislative session that begins Thursday to address “a real blind spot in the police reform discussion we are all having now.”
In addition to Sedillo Lopez’s bill, slightly different versions of which have failed during previous sessions, lawmakers are expected to push several other proposed changes to how officers operate in New Mexico as street protests and impassioned calls for reform have swept the nation following the deaths of several black people at the hands of police. Among them: A requirement that all officers and deputies in the state wear body cameras, a ban on chokeholds and a clearer path for people to sue officers in civil court. If passed and signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Sedillo Lopez’s proposal would force all New Mexico jurisdictions to review “police actions that result in death or great bodily harm” the same way, she said.
Hundreds of nonviolent New Mexico prison inmates, including people convicted of drug possession, remained behind bars last week, even as COVID-19 killed its first state prisoner and infected one in three inmates at the Otero County Prison Facility near the southern border. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has won national praise for how she’s led New Mexico through the pandemic, is facing questions over why she hasn’t moved more aggressively to ensure more of the state’s 11 prisons don’t become viral hotspots.
Since March, her administration has freed about 50 inmates — less than 1% of the state’s prison population — through an April 6 order that requires her to commute sentences rather than using a law already on the books that would allow hundreds of prisoners to be released early.
The minimal prisoner releases pale next to what some states have done to ease crowding in — and the 30% reduction New Mexico counties have accomplished in the state’s 27 jails. Lujan Grisham’s approach has given some pause, especially given the first-term Democrat’s advocacy for legalizing recreational cannabis and her recent creation of a Council for Racial Justice in response to protests that spilled into New Mexico streets over the killing by police of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis.
About one quarter of those locked up in New Mexico’s prisons are in for nonviolent drug offenses, including many, some long-time criminal justice watchers say, who were prosecuted for possessing marijuana — an offense that would be legal if New Mexico green-lighted recreational cannabis as Lujan Grisham has lobbied. Hispanic and black people are disproportionately incarcerated in New Mexico, as they are nationwide.
State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, believed the pandemic represented a “golden opportunity” for the Lujan Grisham administration to try a different approach besides prison, but he’s “very disappointed,” he said.
“They basically haven’t dented the prison population, and now there is an outbreak which anyone could have predicted,” Ortiz y Pino said. “I have been concerned about why we have these kinds of low-level drug offenders locked up for a long time, and I am even more concerned now.”
Mark Donatelli, a longtime criminal defense and civil rights lawyer based in Santa Fe, wants to know why the governor hasn’t released prisoners using the Community Corrections Act.
The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center Jeff Proctor/NMID
New Mexico’s 27 adult county jails have slashed their combined population by a third since the new coronavirus began tearing through the state 11 weeks ago, according to data gathered by the New Mexico Association of Counties. On March 13, two days after New Mexico saw its first confirmed COVID-19 cases, counties held nearly 6,000 men and women behind bars; by Wednesday, May 27, around 4,000 sat in jails around the state, the vast majority of them awaiting trial. District attorneys, public defenders and county officials told New Mexico In Depth the rapid population reductions could signal a long-term shift toward locking fewer people up, in a state that historically has had higher rates of incarceration in jails than most others. Some of the largest dips have been in counties hardest hit by the virus, including McKinley (more than a 60% decrease) and San Juan (with a 45% decline). The numbers appear to be ticking back up since the low point on May 1, but Grace Philips, general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties, calls the overall trend a “significant reduction.”
The sharp decline comes from a joint effort to avoid an outbreak in jails of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus that has infected tens of thousands of inmates and guards nationwide, killing hundreds.
New Mexico appears to have bucked another national trend. Just one of the nearly 4,000 inmates and staff tested in the state’s 11 prisons is positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to results released by the state Corrections Department on Friday. The lone positive result, according to a news release from department spokesman Eric Harrison, was for a correctional officer at the Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral, near the U.S. border with Mexico. The officer is now in self-quarantine at home, Harrison’s release said. Across the nation, prisons and jails have emerged as hotspots for COVID-19, with incarcerated populations and those who work to supervise them testing positive at alarmingly high rates in some places.
Many inmates suffer from pre-existing health conditions that make them particularly susceptible to the often fatal consequences of COVID-19, leaving prisons with some of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S. as the pandemic continues its march.