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Law must be able to hold all accountable


While mental illness isn’t a crime, it’s also not a permission slip to excuse crimes.

Yet that’s what happens in New Mexico once a defendant has been found by the court to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. It’s a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for future crimes. That freedom from accountability has allowed a small number of offenders to act with increasing brazenness against both property owners and police.

“We deal with them all day, every day,” Las Cruces Police Chief Jeremy Story said during a recent community radio interview. “If there is one thing that would have the biggest effect, it’s dealing with competency. District Court had 141 cases in three years. Those are all crimes. So, where there are no consequences, just dismissed and that’s it … of course we’re going to continue to see this.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has called for a special session starting July 18 to address the problem. She wants judges to have the authority to order those unable to stand trial into mandatory treatment programs.

Legislation was introduced during the regular session that would have required the court to conduct a same-day hearing on competency and dangerousness within 30 days after an initial finding that a defendant is not competent to stand trial. Those found competent would go to trial. If the finding is incompetent but not dangerous, charges would be dismissed but could be filed again later. Those found to be both incompetent and dangerous would be eligible for involuntary civil commitment to a treatment center.

Bills were filed in both the House and Senate but neither made it through the committee process.

There are serious civil liberties issues anytime the government is considering new laws to enhance its power to take away the freedom of its citizens. As I noted in the first line of this column, mental illness is not a crime. Those unable to speak for themselves must be well represented to ensure their rights are protected.

Successful implementation of this new strategy will require a substantial investment in mental health treatment that reaches all corners of our state. We’ve got to do more than just keep dangerous people off the street for 30 days at a time.

There’s a lot to work out in a special session that the governor hopes to wrap up in a few days. Especially given that she also wants to address panhandling laws and enhanced penalties for felons in possession of a gun.

Special sessions are not conducive to thoughtful, deliberate debate on complicated issues. Our unpaid legislators don’t want to be there. Even Democrats who agree with the governor want to get back home as soon as possible. Negotiations take place behind closed doors, and the public comment is typically restricted and irrelevant.

And so, while the governor has correctly identified the problem, it remains to be seen what solution, if any, will come from this special session.

What is clear is that something needs to change. Police need to be able to do their jobs. Business owners and their customers need to be able to operate safely and without harassment. And, those who break the law and violate the security of others need to understand that they will be held responsible for their actions.


Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com. Walter Rubel's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.