Trying to get to ‘… and justice for all’

By Rob Nikolewski on December 1, 2013
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By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE  – Earlier this week, there was a feeling of holiday cheer at the Roundhouse, even though the subject was hardly jovial.

Democrats and Republicans were working together, listening and trying to devise practical ways to improve New Mexico’s criminal justice system and there was nary a hint of the rancor we’ve been accustomed to seeing in our partisan and polarized political landscape.

Maybe the lack of bickering is due to the fact that the Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee has only recently been established. When you’re in the planning and talking stages, it’s easy for everyone to get along.

Rob Nikolewski. Photo courtesy of Santa Fe New Mexican/Clyde Mueller.

So far, though, the subcommittee offers hope that that the idea of good governance doesn’t have to be just some hollow platitude.

“We don’t need to be tough on crime, we need to smart on crime,” said state Sen. Lisa Torraco, a Republican from Albuquerque who co-chairs the subcommittee.

It’s reminiscent of another phrase I first heard about a year ago but am now hearing more often: That we need to distinguish between punishing the people we’re scared of (violent criminals) and those we’re simply mad at (non-violent offenders).

Jerry Madden calls the people in the latter category “the knuckleheads.”

“They’re in on drug charges or for writing hot checks,” Madden told me during a break in the subcommittee hearing. “They got involved with the wrong crowd, not hardened criminals.”

Madden is a recently retired legislator in Texas who, as chairman of the Corrections Committee in the Texas statehouse, helped lead reform efforts that reduced the prison population by 6,000 inmates since 2011 without seeing the crime rate go up. In fact, Madden says, the crime rate the Lone Star State has continued to drop.

Reducing the prison population and easing overcrowding has long been a cry from the political left but what’s making this movement interesting and giving it extra momentum is that the call is being joined by many on the right.

A Republican, Madden is a senior fellow with a nonprofit called “Right On Crime” and has worked with Hal Stratton, the former New Mexico Attorney General who was elected in 1986 as the first Republican to win the AG’s race since 1928.

In a , Madden and Stratton argue for changing the state’s criminal justice system from a fiscal as well as moral standpoint: “For too long, conservatives have abandoned their limited government principles when it comes to criminal justice spending – pushing construction of prisons without regard to cost or, more importantly, whether such an approach actually improves public safety.”

And we do spend a lot of money on incarceration.

, New Mexico spent almost $300 million in fiscal 2011 to house an average of 6,700 offenders and supervise another 18,000 offenders each day.

It’s in New Mexico is about $34,000 per year. Compare that to the average of $7,300 that’s spent per student in New Mexico’s public schools.

Adding to the harmony during Tuesday’s hearing was state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, a Democrat from Albuquerque and subcommittee co-chair, who told reporters, “Ironically, it’s our friends from the right that are doing it, it’s the red states that are doing these reforms, and we have to learn from their example.”

Torraco said she doesn’t expect any major policy legislation to be introduced until the 60-day legislative session in January of 2015 — “We’re not going to (create a better system) by jumping in and being impulsive and piece-mealing something together,” Torraco said.

But there’s a feeling of optimism that something can be done to — surprise! — make the system a whole lot better.

And reasonable minds should be able to accomplish something meaningful.

Maestas phrased it very well: “I think the public is ahead of the policy makers with regards to this. Everyone has loved ones who has substance abuse problems, alcohol or drugs, and they know the criminal justice system doesn’t solve those problems.”

Huh, something that helps people and actually saves taxpayers some money. What a concept.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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