Each of the bills passed with at least some bipartisan support during the 60-day session that ended last month. But the governor’s move Wednesday showed how far the state has pivoted on criminal justice issues in just a few months.
“We will never, ever weaken our resolve to be tough on the worst offenders. But we will responsibly take steps to assist our friends and neighbors who deserve a second chance to contribute to our society,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement after signing the series of bills.
Still, while other parts of the country have had similar laws in place for years, the big test may be putting these laws into practice for the first time in New Mexico.
Senate Bill 370, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2020, will allow people to ask a court to seal records of their arrest or conviction.
Known as expunction, the process is strictly limited under current law to arrests for misdemeanors or petty misdemeanors. Even then, records cannot be expunged for crimes of “moral turpitude.”
Most states have embraced expunction, however, as a means of helping people who have completed their sentences, were wrongly arrested or were victims of identity theft to find employment and get back to a normal life once untangled from the criminal justice system.
In turn, proponents say, such measures boost employment and prevent repeat offenses.
“We focus so much on the politics of penalties, the politics of punishment and trying to do punishment as a deterrent to crime,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, a Democrat from Albuquerque who sponsored the bill. “We finally realized the facts don’t bear that out. You have to deal with recidivism. The No. 1 crime fighter is a job.”
New Mexico will still prohibit expunction for crimes against children, sex offenses, drunken driving, embezzlement and offenses that cause great bodily harm or death to another person.
A judge must still decide on each qualifying case, the court will have to notify victims and records will still show up in background checks for firearm purchases or sensitive jobs such as at national laboratories.
Some lawmakers and government transparency advocates opposed the bill — raising concerns it would deprive the public and potential employers of information they might want to know about a person they are hiring or allowing into their homes.
“The bill violates the most basic principle of the public’s right to know by erasing what is and has historically been a public record,” the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said in a statement.
SB 96 bars employers from asking about past arrests or convictions on an initial job application.
Known as the “ban the box” bill, in reference to the box job applicants sometimes must check on a form that inquires about their criminal history, the legislation is similar to laws enacted in at least 33 other states, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Under the law, which will take effect by mid-June, employers may still ask about a job applicant’s criminal record in the interview process but not on a first application.
Backers say that will at least give people with criminal records a chance at an interview and, perhaps, a job.
Sponsored by Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Belen, and Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, the idea has united an unlikely coalition of liberal and conservative backers who see it as an issue of empowerment, redemption and civil rights.
Though the governor did not mention it in her statement, another bill, SB 323, also could prevent many people from ending up with a criminal record.
Sponsored by Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, the bill effectively decriminalizes possession of small amounts of cannabis. Starting in July, possession of up to half an ounce of cannabis will be punishable by a $50 fine. It will count as a penalty assessment, not a criminal conviction.
An analysis of the bill by legislative aides suggested it would cut the cost to courts of processing petty cannabis possession cases and save time for police officers.
Prison reform advocates also scored a victory when the governor signed HB 364, which will limit the use of solitary confinement in prisons and detention centers around New Mexico.
Civil rights advocates have argued for years that the practice of isolating inmates and giving them little contact with other people can have lasting consequences on their mental health.
The law specifically restricts the use of solitary confinement for those under age 18, pregnant women and people with mental illnesses. It also will require the state Corrections Department report regularly on its use of solitary confinement. It will require private prison companies disclose legal settlements with inmates or former inmates. In turn, HB 364 will provide new insight into conditions inside the state’s prisons.
Still, there is deep skepticism of the Corrections Department, which the American Civil Liberties Union found has been underreporting its use of solitary confinement.
“They lie and they lied for years about solitary confinement,” Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, said during a House debate on the bill.
It will be up to a new Corrections Department secretary to implement much of the law. But Lujan Grisham, whose original nominee for the position withdrew, has yet to name someone else to lead the agency.
HB 364 was sponsored by Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, as well as Reps. Maestas, Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, and Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe.
Parts of the new law will take effect July 1.