How will the next New Mexico governor reduce crime?

police car

By Andres Torres/ NM News Port

Joe Sanchez knows the streets. The ex-convict served five years in the Penitentiary of New Mexico for a violent crime. He was released in 2018 and now works for the City of Albuquerque.

“There is tons of crime in ‘Burque.  It’s just strange,” Sanchez said. “Home break-ins, fights, b*llsh*t, guns, and drugs all are in a mixture here and it just sends everyone in a craze.” 

And the crime craze is becoming the talk of the election season.

“Half the time it feels like you can do anything because, sh*t, you honestly won’t even get caught. It’s like the damn wild west,” Sanchez said.  

No wonder public concern over crime is so high. It’s become a leading issue in the November election for New Mexico governor. The incumbent, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has to defend her record against the attacks of her Republican challenger, the former TV weatherman  Mark Ronchetti. And both have become more vocal in explaining how they intend to reduce crime.

Crime is top of mind in the polls. 58% of New Mexicans said “yes” in a poll that asked if crime would influence their vote. 

Crime statistics show New Mexico has among the highest crime rates of any state in the U.S. For every 100,000 people, 6.5 will be accused and convicted of either a violent or a property crime. 

And some criticism is aimed at our justice system, where 49% of all prisoners locked up behind bars in New Mexico will end up back in prison serving another sentence. 

New Mexico crime dropped then started increasing again in recent years. Data from NIBRS. Chart by Andres Torres / NM News Port

Mark Ronchetti’s lock-em-up position

Political newcomer Mark Ronchetti says he wants to “end catch and release,” and will do everything in his power to stop the cycle of letting criminals out of prison early. 

“In Bernalillo County alone, police officers arrest two offenders every day, on average, who have been released from jail and are committing new crimes,” Ronchetti said in a press release. “And every other day, they arrest a released-from-jail criminal for committing a new violent crime.”

Ronchetti has also clarified that he thinks New Mexico needs stricter laws to stop people from committing criminal acts. 

He proposes to expand three-strike laws which will allow for harsher punishments upon a third misdemeanor conviction. 

To do this, Ronchetti vows to replace judges in New Mexico and to pass laws to allow for harsher sentencing by judges.  

Dr. Dennis Griever, a professor in the Department of Criminology at New Mexico State University, said the data show mixed results when it comes to three strikes laws. 

“ Like everything, there is an upside and a downside. Some individuals are deterred from committing crime based on the possibility of a more serious sentence, but most individuals don’t really think about it,” Griever said. 

“In some cases locking a habitual criminal up for longer periods can reduce crime, they aren’t on the street,” Griever added, “but three strikes law really isn’t the best crime control strategy.”

Lujan Grisham wants bail reform

In her four years as governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham has raised pay for police officers and steered over 4 billion dollars for public safety to reduce crime. She calls that “a record” investment in public safety. 

“Now what does that mean? It means making sure that we’re giving our police officers the raises and dignity they deserve, the professional development training, the tools to keep them safe, the equipment and vehicles, new crime labs,” she said in a recent TV debate. 

Mark Ronchetti and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham debated crime and other issues in a televised debate Sept 30, 2022, on KOB-TV.

If she wins this election, Lujan Grisham said she would focus on getting bail reform enacted in her next session. 

Bail reform can mean many things, but other states, such as New York and New Jersey, focus on taking away bail for people charged with carjacking, armed robbery, and other severe firearms-related crimes. 

As of now, New Mexican defendants charged with violent crimes need to be considered a danger to the community to have their bail taken away and remain locked up awaiting their trial. 

NMSU criminologist Dennis Griever says judges have a difficult decision when it comes to deciding if a defendant in a criminal case should remain in jail or be released pending their trial. 

“Bail was originally put in place to ensure the charged would show up for trial. Having a speedy trial just doesn’t take place and so many individuals are held before they have been found guilty in court,” Dr. Griever said.

“So the courts now have to look at holding individuals who are a danger to society, versus allowing them to continue their lives before their trial. It really is a no-win situation. We don’t do a really good job of predicting dangerousness,” he said.

Gov. Grisham gets high marks as a crime fighter, according to Dede Feldman, a former member of the New Mexico Senate from 1997 to 2013. 

“I think Michelle Lujan Grisham has been pretty good on crime.” Feldman said, “She was a big supporter of funding the police, the state police. She also was a big supporter of a bill that did not pass in the past legislative session that would have put people in jail awaiting trial.”

In the previous legislative session, Gov. Grisham was unable to get her reforms passed, due to lawmaker concerns for protecting constitutional rights. But she continues to advocate for pre-trial detention and makes this one of her priorities in reducing crime in New Mexico. 

“I believe a rebuttable presumption for individuals accused of violent crimes can be a wedge in the revolving door of repeat violent offenses that have characterized the worst aspects of the crime our state continues to experience,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement to The Albuquerque Journal

Putting more cops on the street

According to a report presented to the Albuquerque City Council, on Oct 4, 2021, 83 APD officers left the department for reasons including resignations, retirements, and terminations. 

In 2021 over 118 officers left the department. 

In a recent TV debate, Gov. Grisham said that New Mexico lost over 400 hundred officers during her term. But with her efforts, she has filled 317 of those positions. 

In return, Ronchetti said he intends to make being a police officer easier by targeting and changing the law Grisham signed in 2021. That made it easier for people to sue New Mexico police officers. 

The bill in question is connected to The New Mexico Civil Rights Act and affects the protection for officers known as qualified immunity. Coming in the wake of the George Floyd protests over police abuses, the law allows New Mexicans to sue police officers for civil-right violations. 

“This is not an anti-police bill,” Grisham said at the time. “This bill does not endanger any first responder or public servant. So long as they conduct themselves professionally within the bounds of our constitution and with a deep and active respect for the sacred rights it guarantees all of us as New Mexicans.” 

Voters will decide on November 8 who will have the last word in the state governor’s race. Meanwhile, the candidates plan to debate again on Wednesday, Oct 12 on KOAT-TV. This debate is the last one scheduled for the two.