By Darrell Todd Maurina
New laws passed recently by the New Mexico legislature markedly increase penalties for sex offenders whose victims are children. Two criminal defense attorneys who have handled sex-related cases in the 9th Judicial District have opposite views of the new legislation.
Clovis attorney Michael Garrett said the new laws give prosecutors important tools through the probation and parole system to rehabilitate offenders.
“These new laws are designed to principally protect children and I find there have been no unreasonable restraints placed upon those who have been charged and convicted of such crimes,” Garrett said. “I represent these people and I know what we’re dealing with here.”
Garrett said he doesn’t mind defending people accused of sex-related crimes, largely because he said police and prosecutors often charge people with more serious crimes than those they actually committed.
“We represent people who have been overcharged and each one of these people is entitled under our constitution to adequate representation,” Garrett said.
Gary Mitchell, an attorney from Ruidoso who has also handled local cases, said the new laws are prompted by politics.
“You have a governor and mayor of our largest city who are patent opportunists,” Mitchell said. “They want to exact penalties that will not help us in the long term.”
“We have a large number of people in our society who are now offenders who were abused as children and because of that abuse commit acts now,” Mitchell said. “We forget that at one time they were victims, too, and we did nothing for them.”
None of the new penalties will apply to those currently charged with sex crimes in New Mexico. The higher penalties go into effect in February and can be applied only to crimes committed after that time.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Brett Carter said he would like to see the penalties be made more harsh than those the legislature passed, but had concerns about whether the higher maximum probation times will work.
“Anytime you see increased penalties, that means more defendants will want to take their cases to trial,” Carter said.
“Until they increase our staff to handle these people on probation, I’m not sure how much good it will do,” Carter said. “Our probation officers are already overworked and have more cases than they can handle effectively.”
Highlights of the newly passed sex-crime legislation
> Second-degree criminal sexual penetration of a child 13-18 punishable by three to 15 years in prison, with three years mandatory. Current basic sentence is nine years, no minimum.
> Second-degree criminal sexual contact of a minor punishable by three 15 years in prison, with three years mandatory. Current basic sentence is nine years, no minimum.
> Third-degree felony for sexual offense against a child punishable by six years, up from current three.
> Probation for sex offenders minimum five years, maximum 20 years; now, probation is maximum five years.
> Parole for sex offenders minimum five years, maximum 20 years; now, probation is maximum two years.
> Kidnapping drops from first-degree to second-degree felony only if kidnapper releases victim without physical injury or sexual offense.
> Sex Offender Management Board created within Sentencing Commission.
> Changes apply to those who offend after the law takes effect in February.