By Rep. Paul Pacheco
Since the tragic death of Rio Rancho Police officer Gregg Benner, we’ve heard a lot about judicial accountability, oversight and transparency, all of which are woefully lacking when it comes to keeping violent repeat offenders off our streets.
Not long after our community was struck with the news of this travesty, we discovered that the career criminal accused in this crime was facing three indictments but instead was given early release from a possible 13-year prison sentence.
The deal that allowed Andrew Romero free represents a fundamental flaw in our state’s system, a public safety flaw that must be immediately addressed.
The problems that face our current system are two-tiered:
First, we must take legislative action to toughen penalties for violent repeat offenders that include mandatory prison time and much-needed reform to New Mexico’s “three strikes” law; second, there must be a system of accountability and oversight of our state’s judges to ensure they are enforcing these important laws.
As a retired police officer with more than 27 years of law enforcement experience, I have witnessed first-hand the legal revolving door that has been fostered in our state. Since my election to the state Legislature, I have advocated for tougher penalties and efforts to end these early release programs for violent offenders, only to be faced with opposition and political obstructionism, first from the former leaders of the state House and now from Senate leaders.
It’s time for New Mexico’s elected officials to cast our partisan agendas aside in order to reform our state’s three strikes law passed by the Legislature in 1994.
This law severely restricts the judiciary in that criminals prosecuted under this law would already be serving out life sentences for crimes such as first-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. According to the N.M. Department of Corrections, there are currently no criminals serving prison time under the current version of our three strikes law.
Along with Rep. Tim Lewis, we have been working to build a coalition of Democratic and Republican legislators in an effort to build bipartisan support for expansion of the types of crimes that would qualify for mandatory life sentences under our three strikes law.
By expanding the umbrella in which we can keep dangerous criminals off our streets, we can supply state prosecutors the tools necessary to go after these repeat offenders. By adding crimes such as conspiracy to commit murder and aggravated burglary, we can finally close the loophole that allows violent offenders such as Andrew Romero free to roam our streets.
Finally, the voters of New Mexico must keep our state’s judiciary accountable for their actions on the bench.
Every two years judges throughout the state run for retention, which provides the voters an opportunity to evaluate their performance, but it’s critical that voters get involved in the process. In the 2014 General Election, 85 judges from around the state were up for retention, however only 40 percent of the state’s electorate actually cast a ballot. We must do better.
Ensuring the safety of the public is not something that we can fix overnight, and it’s not something that can be done by simply passing a law. The safety of our community will require a meaningful partnership between all of our community’s stakeholders: the public, state lawmakers, the judiciary, prosecutors and law enforcement, because only working together can we keep dangerous criminals away from our communities.
A decorated veteran of the U.S. Air Force, public safety officer, father, husband and friend, Gregg Benner will not be forgotten by the community in which he lived and served.